Trees store carbon, but a wind farm produces power. Which is greener?

Anne Lawrence/Broome County Concerned Residents
A town road in New York's Broome County is being expanded by the developers of a wind farm so that large trucks and turbine blades can pass, in March 2021.

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Tony Wagner wants to preserve his family-owned forest outside Binghamton, New York, and that puts him at odds with the developer of a wind farm on high ground nearby. While his tract of forest won’t be cut down to make way for giant wind turbines that will generate clean energy for New York’s electrical grid, the region’s ecosystem will be affected. 

It’s not just the environmental impact that irks Mr. Wagner and other local critics of the project. It also seems to be at cross-purposes with New York’s goal of increasing forest cover so as to absorb more carbon under its statewide climate plan. 

Why We Wrote This

Setting aside land for renewable energy projects can come at a cost to forest preservation, setting up a clash between competing values and objectives.

“There’s a lot of controversy; there’s no question about that. This has been a real struggle; this has been a four-year struggle, if you want to know the truth,” says Dewey Decker, town supervisor of Sanford. 

This clash of environmental and climate priorities isn’t unique to upstate New York. Building enough wind and solar facilities to power a nation built on fossil fuel extraction raises tough questions of trade-offs. The answer may lie in building more offshore wind farms and finding ways to transmit clean energy from less populated areas. 

In a pair of small towns outside Binghamton, New York, a battle is raging over competing priorities in the state’s efforts to mitigate climate change and protect its environment.

A new 27-tower wind farm promises to significantly boost clean energy production in New York, which relies on fuels imported from other states to generate most of its electricity. But the project comes at the cost of some 313 acres of local forest that currently act as a “carbon sink” for emissions. And preserving such forests is also an important piece of the state’s climate strategy.

Tony Wagner, who owns forest land near the wind farm site, fears the project, known as Bluestone Wind, will degrade the habitats and ecosystems of thousands of acres of contiguous forest. He’s part of a group of concerned citizens who fought fiercely against the project, but to no avail; the trees started coming down earlier this year.

Why We Wrote This

Setting aside land for renewable energy projects can come at a cost to forest preservation, setting up a clash between competing values and objectives.

“There’s a place for wind turbines, but this is the worst possible place for wind turbines,” says Mr. Wagner. 

In some ways, this is a classic case of not-in-my-backyard versus the power of a big-money developer and the exigencies of climate action. But here, some residents are looking beyond concerns about noise and aesthetics, and asking a thorny question: Is it worth trading hundreds of acres of forest land for a couple of dozen wind turbines? 

The conflict raises larger questions about how states like New York, which aims to generate 70% of its energy from renewables by 2030, will balance these competing environmental priorities when considering new clean energy projects.

Wind and solar farms face opposition across the country where similar clashes between competing environmental priorities, along with NIMBY complaints, are playing out. A new study by Columbia Law School counted at least 100 local ordinances in 31 states that block or restrict renewable energy projects. 

“There’s a climate crisis and there’s a biodiversity crisis, and smart renewable energy development can answer both,” says Nathan Cummins, who directs the Great Plains Renewable Energy Strategy at The Nature Conservancy.

His work focuses mostly in the central United States – where the vast majority of wind turbines are located – and he wasn’t able to speak about Bluestone Wind directly. But he said there are ways to add clean energy to areas that have already been developed to avoid most, if not all, negative impacts to the environment. Moreover, offshore wind farms, though they tend to stoke controversy, are showing a lot of promise.

“There’s enough low-impact land out there that you don’t need to make the trade-offs,” Mr. Cummins says.

Anne Lawrence/Broome County Concerned Residents
At this parcel in New York's Broome County, all trees were cut in March 2021 to accommodate a portion of Bluestone Wind, a wind farm project. The piles of wood chips come from smaller trees or tops that can't be used commercially, and may be repurposed in embankments for flood and runoff control.

Small towns, big controversy

Chris Stanton, the lead developer of the Bluestone Wind project, first approached the towns of Sanford and Windsor in 2016 with a plan to construct dozens of wind turbines along mountain ridgelines.  

“What we found early on is that we had a very receptive community,” says Mr. Stanton, project development manager for Northland Power, the Canadian company that is building Bluestone Wind.

The proposal was particularly well received, he said, by landowners who stood to benefit financially from leasing small plots where the wind turbines will stand. One is Sanford’s last surviving dairy farmer, who credits the leasing income for keeping him in business. The same goes for a Methodist youth camp in the area that is leasing land.

“A lot of the landowners who are participating in the project tend to rely on their land for income,” Mr. Stanton says.

Dewey Decker, Sanford town supervisor, paints a much more complicated picture; many of the town’s 2,000 residents, especially those who won’t see direct financial benefits, remain skeptical. Sanford is, however, expected to receive $800,000 in taxes annually from Bluestone Wind, and the project will create 150 temporary construction jobs.

“There’s a lot of controversy; there’s no question about that. This has been a real struggle; this has been a four year struggle, if you want to know the truth,” Mr. Decker says.

Perhaps the loudest group of opponents is the effort led by Mr. Wagner and others in Broome County. 

Mr. Wagner lives in Maine, but his family owns a 310-acre plot just south of the wind farm site. This slice of forest was handed down from his grandparents, and he wants it to eventually pass to his grandchildren. The property is a certified tree farm that follows sustainable harvesting practices aimed at preserving the long-term health of the forest and its wildlife.

Mr. Wagner says he probably won’t even be able to see the 670-foot-high wind turbines from his property, even if he did live here. He got involved in the campaign to help his neighbors protect an environment they hold dear.

“We hate to see the land being destroyed,” he said.

Thorny trade-offs

No matter what type of energy a community depends on, there are always trade-offs. Fossil fuels have obvious, well-documented pollution and emissions consequences. Nuclear has until now been a hard sell for a public that hasn’t forgotten previous meltdowns. Wind and solar, which are now some of the cheapest and cleanest options, don’t guarantee continuous power generation, and have significant impacts on the land.  

The Bluestone Wind project could produce enough power to supply about 59% of the county’s households, according to Northland Power. (However, the power generated locally feeds into a regional grid, along with other sources.) Viewed another way, that’s the equivalent of taking 15,800 cars off the road, Northland estimates. 

Mr. Stanton, the project developer, says that fossil-fuel substitution far outweighs any potential environmental impacts. The developer went through a rigorous state permitting process, including submissions on wildlife protection, natural resources, visual character, and other commonly litigated issues. 

“[The standards] are based in research and science,” he says.

Even when renewable energy projects pass certain standards, they still have environmental impacts, both direct and indirect, says Mr. Cummins of The Nature Conservancy. For example, because wind turbines have to be spread far apart, the towers and their access roads can have the effect of fragmenting animal habitats. And the trees cut down to make room for these developments represent a store of carbon that gets lost. 

A complex puzzle

Concerns about flora and fauna, however, are only one piece of a complex puzzle around where to build wind turbines. Developers also have to consider wind speeds, the ability to plug into the larger electrical grid, and the cost of construction.

In a state like New York, which lacks the high wind speeds of the Great Plains, mountain ridgelines are among the only viable places to build onshore wind farms.

So a project like Bluestone Wind might be the best-case scenario, and some of the impacts can and are being mitigated. But rather than minimizing and mitigating in densely populated Northeast states, Mr. Cummins says we should build out wind capacity in Great Plains states while developing offshore wind farms, so as to avoid these trade-offs all together. 

“Avoidance is the most cost-effective way for conservation,” he says.

As the pace of clean energy construction increases in coming years, these decisions will become all the more urgent. Wind and solar energy, for all of their benefits, take up much more land than fossil fuel power plants. And they promise to significantly transform the landscape in places like Sanford and Windsor.

Mr. Decker, the Sanford town supervisor, says the idea of cutting down trees is not completely foreign to residents; there’s already some logging activity in the area. But the way acres of land are being cleared for Bluestone Wind has jolted the community, nonetheless.

“To just go in and clear-cut, that doesn’t look good,” he says.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the sources of electricity generated in New York.  

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