On the surface, the fight over renewable-energy siting in western New York looks hopelessly mismatched. Governor Andrew Cuomo—the scion of a Democratic political dynasty and the leader of a state with nearly 20 million residents—is pushing a scheme that will require the state’s utilities to derive 50 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2030. Cuomo’s highest-profile opponent is Dan Engert, the Republican supervisor in the Niagara County town of Somerset—population 2,700. Last year, Engert won a third term by garnering about 400 votes. So, yes, Cuomo versus Engert looks like a mismatch. But here’s a tip: don’t bet against Engert and his allies.
Achieving Cuomo’s “50 by 30” goal will require inflicting hundreds of 600-foot-high wind turbines on numerous towns and counties in western New York. Engert is Cuomo’s antagonist in the fight over a proposed 200-megawatt project called Lighthouse Wind. The fate of the Lighthouse project, which will cover about 20,000 acres on the shores of Lake Ontario, could determine the fate of Cuomo’s entire renewable scheme. The project will be the first contested land-use case involving Article 10, the New York State statute that, in theory, gives local municipalities a say in renewable-project siting. Three upstate counties—Erie, Orleans, and Niagara—as well as the towns of Yates and Somerset, are all fighting the project, which is being pushed by Virginia-based Apex Clean Energy.
Article 10 gives a seven-member board the authority to decide where renewable-energy projects will be located. Two seats go to representatives from the affected region. The other five are filled with Cuomo appointees. If the siting board ignores the objections of Somerset, Yates, and the three counties, and approves the Lighthouse project, the decision could pave the way for additional Big Wind projects, all of which would be needed to meet Cuomo’s renewable goal. In July, the New York Independent System Operator estimated that meeting Cuomo’s 50-percent target will require another 3,500 megawatts of onshore wind-energy capacity. That means adding 17 projects the size of Lighthouse Wind. In addition, the NYISO estimates New York will have to install nearly 10,000 megawatts of new solar capacity—an amount roughly equal to the existing solar capacity of Spain and Australia combined. Where does Albany plan to put all those renewable-energy projects? In rural areas, of course.
Engert, a thickly muscled man who sports a close-cropped crew cut, is by day the deputy chief at the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office. He says the Article 10 process has stacked the deck against small towns like his. Cuomo is treating “upstate New York like we are second-class citizens,” Engert said. The Lighthouse Wind project “is not wanted by more than 75 percent of the residents of this community . . . . The will of this community is unquestioned.” But Apex, he said, is “hellbent on ramming a project through here despite the loud message we have sent which is that ‘your project is not wanted here, it’s not needed here.’”
Cuomo’s renewable-energy push is “a massive land grab on the part of Albany,” says Dennis Vacco, the former New York attorney general, who has been hired by the town of Somerset to represent it. When I spoke to Vacco a few weeks ago about the Lighthouse project, the anger in his voice was obvious. “The wind industry is engaged in a war of attrition against local governments,” he said. “The wind developers have all the money. They get all the tax credits. But they create effectively no jobs.”
Vacco also represents the town of Clayton, which is involved in a similar fight against Big Wind. In April, Clayton imposed a six-month moratorium on applications for new wind-energy projects. That moratorium was upheld in state Supreme Court after being challenged in court by Spanish wind developer Iberdrola. (Iberdrola is the same firm that offered cash payments to residents of two Vermont towns—Grafton and Windham—if the voters approved November 8 ballot items on the proposed Stiles Brook wind project. Both towns voted against the project by wide margins.)
Small towns in New York have been fighting wind-energy projects for years. A review of media stories shows that since 2005, 39 government entities in the state have moved to reject or restrict wind projects. But small towns like Yates and Somerset are at a huge disadvantage when they take on outfits like Apex and Iberdrola. The companies “know these little towns don’t have the resources to fight them,” Vacco told me.
Proof of Vacco’s point came on November 3, when Apex Clean Energy sued Somerset over delays in permitting for two meteorological towers that the company wants to install so it can move forward with the Lighthouse project. Six days later, Somerset’s town board approved its $2.9 million 2017 budget. Engert and his fellow board members allocated $300,000 to fight Lighthouse Wind. Thus, a town of fewer than 3,000 residents has set aside 10 percent of its budget to fight Big Wind. Imagine if it were an oil and gas company suing a small New York town instead of a “clean” energy developer. The screams of outrage would have been audible from Albany to Sierra Club headquarters in San Francisco.
Despite the difficulty of fighting Apex and Cuomo, Engert has been encouraged by the results of the November 8 election. In neighboring Vermont, a state that is heavily Democratic, voters elected an anti-wind Republican, Phil Scott, as their new governor. At the federal level, Engert believes President-elect Trump may be willing to slash the hefty federal subsidies being given to Big Wind. Furthermore, Engert has been pleased with his interactions with U.S. representative Chris Collins, a Republican from western New York who is serving on Trump’s transition team.
Engert knows the odds are against him. But he remains undaunted. “We are trying to protect the health, safety, and welfare of our residents. I am not going to lie down. I wouldn’t frivolously spend my taxpayers’ dollars on something like this if I didn’t think we were going to win. We are going to knock this project out. We are going to prevail. I truly believe that.”
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images