Business: Blowin’ in the Wind

Two major Spanish companies specializing in wind technology have settled here, hoping to cash in on the alternative-energy craze. With a volatile oil market, could Philly become the new … Holland?

"I’ve gone up there six or seven times,” says my guide, Joe Green, a clean-cut and athletic-looking Navy veteran, a kid from nearby Shenandoah who was working as a sales manager for an electronics-board company when an odd dream to build a wind farm came over him. He hocked his house and cleaned out his bank account. And like the guy with the baseball diamond in the cornfield, Green started to build it, and they came — with checkbooks. Locust Ridge was purchased by Community Energy, then folded into the Iberdrola portfolio; the Spaniards now employ Green as a developer. His first project is to put 51 more turbines on this ridge, to make it one of the largest wind farms in Pennsylvania.
Six months after Locust Ridge started generating power in December 2006, Joe Green and his wife stood proudly on this spot with Ed Rendell, who had come out to crow about how the project symbolizes the state’s forward-thinking energy-policy — that wind could do for its economy what coal did a century ago. With the lack of any leadership from Washington, Rendell (rumored to be the frontrunner to become Secretary of Energy in a new Democratic administration) has joined a number of governors in trying to cobble together a new energy policy. If the push continues toward double-digit clean energy generation, as the state mandates, a lot of new turbines are going to need to be erected.
Right now, there are dozens of wind farms in various stages of development in Pennsylvania, many on the windier ridges of the Allegheny Mountains in the western part of the state. A few are meeting strong local opposition, something Joe Green says was never a problem at Locust Ridge. (“I think it was because I was a local boy,” he says.) Indeed, the average homeowner has only a vague idea of how wind power works. “In the early days, people would say, ‘Will my lights go out when the wind stops blowing?’” Alderfer remembers. Now, people are starting to get it. Still, he says, some ask, “Will there be a windmill in my backyard?” Opponents present a host of issues that range from access roads destroying pristine forests to annoying noise from the turbines and “strobe flash” from the spinning blades.
Wind farm developers like Iberdrola dangle the promise of annual rent payments to landowners on windy ridges (from $2,000 to $6,000 per turbine), and to woo other residents, they mention how local school tax revenues will increase from economic development that doesn’t produce any new kids.
Where Iberdrola’s Brent Alderfer seems to relentlessly accentuate the positive, Gamesa’s Julius Steiner is a little less optimistic that wind energy will breeze into prominence here. “Pennsylvania has a history and tradition of coal,” he says. “And I think the state is slow to change its ways, as far as the attitudes of the people who live here. I don’t think the population as a whole has fully embraced the vision that the Governor has. I think you see that in the opposition that we and other developers have gotten to wind farm development. It’s a mixed bag in Pennsylvania.”