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Clean wind farms on dirty soil

Each wind turbine sports a different graphical design. The one closes to Buffalo bears its namesake animal.
Daniel Robison
Each wind turbine sports a different graphical design. The one closes to Buffalo bears its namesake animal.

Buffalo and western New York love their manufacturing history. Sometimes better known as “the good old days.” But like a broken heart from a once-promising relationship, what’s left behind can often be described as tattered. Officially, these chemical soaked land parcels are known as brownfields.

It’s tough to redevelop brownfields because of the cost. Legally, hundreds of tons of dirt must be scrapped off and replaced for a brownfield to become suitable for development. So, predictably, much of this land just sits there.

One way to avoid much of the remediation costs is by building wind turbines on top of brownfields . A wind farm in Lackawanna is a prime example. They're known locally as "Norm's Windmills" but officially, its Steel Winds

By all accounts, the wind farm has been successful and Lackawanna is getting a nice chunk of change out of it. However, the windmills are a major point of curiosity. People talk about them a lot. The gentleman  who gave me a tour (whom I cannot name because his company, who manages the property, will not let him) of the turbines says many people have to be thrown off the property. He says that at night, tresspassers like to party next to green energy-generating infrastructure.

So far, only eight turbines have been built over four years. While there are no shortage of wind or brownfields, the slow economy has prevented the region from having even more wind farms on nearly useless brownfields.”

Beyond the economic woes, there is also a larger issue at hand. All the lakefront property in the city is privately owned. Wind gains momentum off of water surfaces and can thus efficiently generate more power from wind farms. Without interest from those property owners, no further wind development will happen. 

Many of those property owners don’t want turbines built on their land because they hold out hope some kind of industry may return, according to Lackawanna Mayor Norm Polanski.  Wind turbines generate just a sliver of the revenue a factory would.

In the meantime, a second phase of 18 additional turbines on the site of the original wind farm has been scaled back dramatically. Many reasons contributed to the reduction. There were technical drawbacks. A handful of the area’s taxing units (villages, cities, school districts, etc.) wanted a piece of the revenue and got it. In the process, the business venture became less profitable for the private developer. The future of this second phase is a certainty to some and a question to others.

WBFO/Western New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.