article & photo by Anthony Spaulding
The winds of change are blowing energy alternatives into central Pennsylvania and stirring up debate along the way.
Central Pennsylvania, with its many blustery ridgetops, is seen as a prime location for wind farms by wind turbine companies and local environmentalists concerned about climate change. But others in the environmental community argue that wind farms would harm forests and wildlife, and local planners worry about sound pollution and blighted landscapes.
Gamesa Energy USA, one of the largest wind turbine companies in the world, is planning to build 25 wind turbines on Ice Mountain, which straddles the border between Blair and Centre counties. The proposed Sandy Ridge Wind Farm would consist of 10 to 15 wind turbines on the part of the mountain owned by Tyrone Borough and 10 turbines on Taylor Township land, according to Gamesa project manager Josh Framel.
Framel said Gamesa has plans for wind farms in other areas of central Pennsylvania, but he didn’t elaborate.
Tyrone Borough Council is considering a 30-year lease of its Ice Mountain land to Gamesa for the wind farm, according to Tyrone Mayor James Kilmartin. The council will not make a decision on the proposal until May, when it will have reviewed the results of an informal poll of voters’ views on the wind farm to be conducted during the April 22 primary, Kilmartin said.
"Time is on our side," he said. "We don't have to rush into a decision."
Ridgetops are the most effective locations for wind farms in central Pennsylvania because they have the strongest winds, according to Juniata Valley Audubon Society President Stan Kotala. The problem, he said, is that the ridgetops are home to unbroken forests and wildlife.
"Some of these areas are important bird and mammal areas," Kotala said. "The ridgetops are the last forest habitat in central Pennsylvania."
Kilmartin said the wind farms would also damage the aesthetics of the region.
"The ridgetops are a drawing point for central Pennsylvania," he said. "A 400-foot apparatus would interfere with that."
A group called "Save Ice Mountain" held a public forum on the proposed wind farm in Tyrone in late March.
"I am afraid of the wind farm messing with the watershed," said Tyrone resident Ron Kobak, who attended the forum. "They need to guarantee me that nothing will happen to our water."
Similar concerns have driven other townships to establish ordinances restricting wind farms. In October of last year, the College Township Council adopted an ordinance prohibiting wind turbines above an elevation of 1,400 feet. The ordinance also regulates the sound levels and lot sizes of wind farms.
"The area is not compatible to wind farms," said Council Chairman David Fryer, who voted for the ordinance. "There is no place for them here."
Fryer said the only place suitable for a wind farm is Mount Nittany, which he said is not likely to ever be a home to turbines.
Councilman David Koll was the sole dissenting vote.
"We can't continue to promote alternative energy but not in our backyard," Koll said. "This is the sacrifice we have to make if we want to be energy-independent."
Framel said Gamesa works with the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to study proposed sites and minimize the ecological impact of turbines.
Gamesa tries to work in "previously disturbed" areas rather than clearing untouched forests, Framel said.
"We try to do diligence," he said.
Framel said money from the lease agreement could be used to address other problems on Ice Mountain, including gypsy moth damage, invasive plant species, a surplus deer population and poor soil quality.
Kilmartin said the money made from the lease would allow local government to reduce taxes and pave roads, among other things.
Despite the benefits, Kilmartin said he is not in favor of the wind farm.
"As of right now, I am against the proposed wind farm," Kilmartin said. "The voice of the people is important to me since so many are against it."
According to Framel, the wind energy from the Sandy Ridge project would provide electricity for 15,000 homes.
Kotala said Pennsylvania would need a prohibitively large number of wind turbines to take a chunk out of the state’s use of energy from fossil fuels. It takes approximately 4,000 wind turbines to match the amount of electricity generated by one nuclear power plant, he said.
"The 4,000 turbines would provide about 10 percent of the electricity in the state," Kotala said. "This would not be a significant amount of impact."
According to energy expert Joel Morrison, Pennsylvania should continue to develop wind farms but do it in a responsible way.
"We need to diversify our energy sources," said Morrison, a research associate at Penn State's Energy Institute. "If we want to become sustainable, we need to find the most cost-effective way to provide energy."
Morrison said the state must play an important role in the development of wind energy.
"The wind industry is in its infancy," Morrison said. "We should be proud to recruit these companies."
For now, people in central Pennsylvania have to think long and hard about whether they want wind farms, Morrison said.
"Where do they want the power from?" Morrison said. "Sooner or later, they need to take a stance on the issue."