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Not with a bang but a whimper


This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

— T.S. Eliot

BP Wind Energy this week ended a protracted effort to establish a commercial wind farm in Cape Vincent with the announcement that it is simply dropping the project and walking away.

For a number of property owners who had lease agreements with the company, this no doubt comes as bad news. Hopes of lease payments of some substance over at least 20 years have dried up, disappeared on the wind that is now not likely to produce electricity on any grand scale.

What is left likely is a bitter taste of betrayal by the company and its predecessors and the hollow feeling of defeat from not prevailing in the townwide fight over the project has been raging for most of a decade.

For the people with houses on and near the lake and river, the ones most likely to have been against the project for both aesthetic and financial reasons, there could be a sense of victory.

It would appear that BP’s decision closes the door on a Cape Vincent wind farm for the foreseeable future. The Cape Vincent Wind Farm was wounded by general downturn in the financial viability of all wind projects, and it was stabbed in the heart by the failure of Congress to renew the production tax credit, which provided wind-farm owners with a subsidy of $23 per megawatt for power produced. Without this subsidy, wind power can’t compete favorably with electricity generated by fossil fuels or nuclear plants.

The production tax credit expired on the last day of 2013, and despite intense lobbying by the wind energy industry, there is no sign that it will be renewed in the near future. This is a significant and ominous change for wind-energy advocates; the subsidy has expired before in the 20 years it has been around, but it always managed to be renewed at the last minute. This Congress appears highly unlikely to do that.

Most of the reason is financial: in an era when government shutdowns hit the headlines and sequestration puts federal employees on furloughs, the cost of the program has risen above the invisible.

With solid Republican control of the House and a less formidable Democratic majority in the Senate, Democrats are a lot more selective about the battles they wage and this one looks like a loser.

Why? Because internationally, the effectiveness of wind energy as a true “green initiative” has been called into question. One major question is the cost, both financially and environmentally, of standby power. No one has as yet come up with a way to make the wind blow.

Thus the vagaries of nature conspire to make wind power intermittent, while power demand is predictably constant. Without plants fired up and ready to go on standby, the power grid could suddenly begin to starve if the wind calms.

The other environmental question is the cost of destruction of bird populations and whether the operation of windmills does, in fact, have negative effects on human health.

And, other problems the industry faces include inadequate transmission systems near where wind is most likely to generate a sufficient amount of power, and the reluctance of many energy suppliers to enter into power-purchase agreements given wind’s intermittent nature.

So the Cape Vincent Wind Farm is dead. An as yet unanswered question is whether the wind industry is so suddenly somnambulant that a proposed project in the Lewis County town of Denmark is still on the drawing boards.

The 49-tower, 79.2-megawatt Copenhagen Wind Farm faced virtually no opposition. Planned for the rolling farmland between Copenhagen and Deer River, neither the tower plan nor the proposed transmission line drew fire. From the standpoint of most of the locals, they were good to go.

Now, however, the nasty little nitty gritty, like the loss of the production tax credit and the lack of a power-purchase agreement, could be as deadly for this project as for the roundly disliked plan in Cape Vincent.

So the success or failure of commercial wind projects appears to be far beyond the influence of north country residents. Which kind of makes you wonder if the wounds of Cape Vincent, or the enthusiasm in Denmark, counted for anything at all. At this point, it appears not.

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