Last month, 60 residents of New York’s Herkimer County filed a lawsuit in Albany that provides yet another example of the growing backlash against the wind-energy sector. It also exposes the double standard that exists in both the mainstream media and among environmental groups when it comes to “green” energy.
The main defendant in the lawsuit is the Spanish electric utility Iberdrola, which is the second-largest wind-energy operator in the U.S. The Herkimer County residents — all of whom live within a mile or so of the $200 million Hardscrabble Wind Power Project — are suing Iberdrola and a group of other companies because of the noise and disruption caused by the wind project.
The lawsuit comes at a touchy time for the wind industry, which is desperately trying to convince Congress to extend the industry’s production tax credit that expires at the end of this year. The subsidy gives wind-energy companies 2.2 cents for every kilowatt-hour of electricity that they produce.
Wind-energy proponents claim that an elimination of this tax credit could result in the loss of 37,000 jobs, but they have not been able to silence the dozens upon dozens of groups that have sprung up to fight expansion of the wind sector. And few places in the U.S. have seen a bigger backlash than New York State. About two dozen New York towns have passed rules banning or restricting wind-energy development, and many rural residents have expressed ongoing concerns about turbine noise.
The noise issue is front and center in the Hardscrabble lawsuit. Neighbors of the project have been complaining about noise from the turbines since last year. Two noise studies done on the Hardscrabble facility found that the turbines sometimes exceed their permitted limit of 50 decibels. In response to the complaints, Iberdrola Renewables — which owns the Hardscrabble project — installed noise-reduction equipment on a handful of the turbines.
In the lawsuit, the residents claim that the noise produced by the turbines on the 74-megawatt facility causes headaches and disturbs their sleep. Some of the residents say they have abandoned their homes because of the noise. Others are claiming that the project has hurt their property values. The key paragraph in the suit says that the defendants “failed to adequately assess the effect that the wind turbines would have on neighboring properties including, but not limited to, noise creation, significant loss of use and enjoyment of property . . . diminished property values, destruction of scenic countryside, various forms of trespass and nuisance to neighboring properties, and health concerns, among other effects.”
For years, the wind industry and its many supporters on the “green” left have been trying to dismiss the turbine-noise issue — and the nearby residents who are complaining about the problem. In late 2009, the American Wind Energy Association and the Canadian Wind Energy Association published a paper that attempted to quiet critics of the noise problem; they stated in the paper that “there is no evidence that the audible or sub-audible sounds emitted by wind turbines have any direct adverse physiological effects.” The paper also suggested that the symptoms critics were attributing to wind-turbine noise were psychosomatic and declared flatly that the vibrations from the turbines were “too weak to be detected by, or to affect, humans.”
The Herkimer County lawsuit — Abele et al. v. Iberdrola et al. — will bring the noise issue into the legal arena where it can be properly adjudicated. But it’s not yet clear what the plaintiffs might get if they win, because the lawsuit doesn’t name a specific dollar amount in damages. Jeff DeFrancisco, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, said that New York State doesn’t allow plaintiffs to put a dollar value on the damages. Further, DeFrancisco said the plantiffs cannot seek injunctive relief because the turbines are already in place. “All we can do is seek compensation,” he says.
DeFrancisco said the litigation was necessary because the residents living near the turbines had no other options. The plaintiffs, he says, “can’t live peacefully” in their homes. “These are people who never had a problem before.” Some of them, he says, “would like to move but can’t because they can’t sell their homes.”
In addition to illustrating the backlash against the wind industry, the Herkimer County lawsuit provides yet another example of the double standard that exists in media coverage of “green” energy. Rural newspapers in New York and a few anti-wind websites have covered the lawsuit, but it has not been mentioned in mainstream media outlets such as the New York Times.
It’s easy to imagine what the coverage in the Times might look like if a lawsuit similar to the one in Herkimer County was filed against a company that was drilling for oil or natural gas. Last year, the Times ran a number of stories under a banner called “drilling down” — some of them were published on the front page — spotlighting hydraulic fracturing and the possibility of water contamination due to drilling.
The issues involved in oil and gas drilling and wind-turbine development are similar. They all entail new industrial activity in rural areas. All bring friction — truck traffic, noise, and other disruptions — to regions that are not accustomed to energy development. But the Times has never published a story on the backlash against the wind industry, even though New York is home to much of the backlash.
Although it’s easy to get riled about the newspaper of record, it’s mainstream environmental groups that display the most pernicious double standard. Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and other groups were founded on the notion of environmental protection. The Sierra Club’s mission statement declares that it wants to “educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment.”
If that’s true, why isn’t the Sierra Club campaigning for the rights of the residents in Herkimer County? Don’t rural landowners have the right to a high-quality natural and human environment that is free from industrial intrusions, like, say, 470-foot-high wind turbines that are built within a few thousand feet of their homes?
The hard reality is that for groups such as the Sierra Club and their fellow travelers, the issue of climate change — and their near-religious belief that wind turbines are an effective method of cutting carbon dioxide emissions — trumps nearly every other concern. If rural residents in Herkimer County and elsewhere are getting steamrolled by wind-energy developers, well, then, that’s just too bad.
It will take months for the Herkimer County lawsuit to wend its way through the courts. But the lawsuit shows, once again, that the anti-wind backlash is growing. And that blowback will only get worse — with or without the help of the self-proclaimed “environmentalists.”
— Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.