ENFIELD, N.Y. — To wax poetic for a moment, one could say a black oak has withered and fallen. The organization planning the Black Oak Wind Farm in Enfield has declared bankruptcy, and the renewable energy project has been cancelled.
According to project representative Marguerite Wells, the culprit is the town of Enfield’s moratorium on wind turbines, a proverbial final nail in the coffin for the beleaguered project. “The project could not survive the moratorium, since the town board had already had a de facto moratorium for the previous nine months as well. With nearly two years of no action on the permit documents before them, our contracts expired and potential investors lost interest.
There is no possibility of us reviving it after the moratorium; our leases and contracts are terminated. There is very low likelihood of anyone else wanting to propose a wind project there in the foreseeable future, due to small project site and oppositional town board and neighbors. Small projects are always financially more difficult to make work, since they have no advantages of scale and many disadvantages.”
The project has been the subject of a highly contentious debate that extended for years. The plan, first conceived in 2006 and modified multiple times over the years, called for seven wind turbines that would produce 16.1 MW of energy, enough to power almost 3,000 homes. The $40 million project was seed-funded on a community level (small investors), with over $1.8 million dollars raised from 110 households who bought into the project. Institutional investors generally stayed away from the project because of its small size, which didn’t offer a big return on investment.
Unfortunately for the backers, the project ran into significant opposition from Enfield and Newfield residents with concerns about wind turbines in their towns. Reasons cited included potential health impacts through noise, wildlife impacts (birds), aesthetic issues and ice accretion. The debate became particularly acrimonious during the review process in late 2015 and 2016, with allegations of legal improprieties and harassment.
The tense and heated debate added to the project’s complications. One of the landowners who had agreed to host a turbine suddenly pulled out without further comment. The town of Newfield, where one of the turbines was planned, enacted heavy restrictions that practically banned commercial-scale wind turbines. The town of Enfield’s apprehension grew as the debate continued. It had stopped reviewing materials and placed a moratorium on turbines earlier this year.
According to a report from the Ithaca Times, as the project has declared bankruptcy and its assets are being liquidated to pay what it can to its backers, the town of Enfield is likely to lose out on over $8,000 spent on regulatory review and legal costs. As an LLC (limited-liability company), Black Oak is only obligated to pay back what it can from the sale its organizational assets, not the personal assets of its owners.
“I am very sorry to have let down the many people who were hoping to see the project become reality. The unfounded fears of a few have won out over the benefit of many more, which is a sad exercise of democracy; but many other communities across New York State are eager to welcome wind projects, which bring much needed economic development and pose no danger to the public,” said Wells.
While the termination of the project may be seen as a loss by sustainable energy advocates, there are silver linings for those folks. Since Black Oak was first proposed several years ago, the market for renewables has become more commercially competitive, largely thanks to improvements in energy storage (better batteries). As a result, commercial-scale solar energy projects have proliferated in Tompkins County, which have led to their own debates on if and where they should be permitted. Meanwhile, in an interesting twist of fate, coal-focused states like Wyoming are welcoming wind projects that dwarf Black Oak.
To close on another poetic note, a black oak may have fallen, but elsewhere, hundreds of seedlings are germinating.
Corrections and additions: According to Black Oak investor Rich Entlich, the project had been first conceived in 2006, not 2012. The final version was revised from an 11.9 MW to a 16.1 MW proposal, as the smaller turbines were discontinued. A final funding round had raised investment from community members from $1.8 million to $3 million. The Voice regrets using outdated information, and appreciates the updated figures.