The spinning windmills at the old Bethlehem Steel site in Hamburg and Lackawanna were a fitting backdrop as local environmentalists and community leaders made a plea to Albany to focus more on renewable energy.
“Let’s Turn, Not Burn” was the campaign slogan the groups used Tuesday to launch the Sierra Club’s Renewable Energy Week in Buffalo, Rochester, Binghamton and Auburn.
The Buffalo event was held at Dug’s Dive on the waterfront, with the 14-turbine wind farm in the background. Called Steel Winds, the windmill project started operating in 2007 and was developed by First Wind, a Massachusetts firm. Company executives have said that it can generate as much power as a conventional plant that would burn more than 115,000 barrels of oil or use 32,000 tons of coal each year.
Steel Winds fits in with the goal of the grass-roots campaign urging Albany to stop using fossil fuels such as coal and to develop renewable energy sources such as wind, water, geothermal and solar power.
“Specifically, we’re asking Gov. Andrew Cuomo to take administrative action to meet and extend the state’s renewable-energy goals … instead of any continued investment in fossil fuels,” said Lynda H. Schneekloth, chairwoman of the Sierra Club, Niagara Group.
Tuesday’s call for more renewable energy comes as the state Thruway Authority is about to get into the wind energy business. The agency plans to place five turbines along the highway between Buffalo and the Pennsylvania state line in an effort to have wind provide one-third of its power needs in the region.
In January, the authority started the bidding process to install the windmills in Eden-Angola, Silver Creek, Dunkirk, Westfield and Ripley.
Wyoming County already has more than 200 wind turbines operating in the towns of Sheldon, Wethersfield and Eagle.
In contrast, the New York Power Authority in 2011 bailed out on a project to build wind farms in Lake Erie just offshore in Erie and Chautauqua counties, citing the project’s costs.
But environmental groups that gathered for Tuesday’s news conference were talking about more than just wind energy.
Schneekloth said Cuomo’s pledge to invest $1.5 billion in solar energy through the NY-Sun Initiative is a very good start, but “much more can be done to keep pace with other states.”
And even when it comes to wind energy, New York lags, they said. Iowa and South Dakota, for example, get 20 percent of their electricity from wind power, Schneekloth said. The figure in New York State is 2 percent, she said.
“We have to do something now. We can’t wait for 15 or 20 years because controlling carbon and methane in the atmosphere now is the only thing that will mitigate the impacts of climate change,” Schneekloth said.
The Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, with about 200 members from the Town of Tonawanda and Buffalo’s West Side, has members living near coal plants, said Erin J. Heaney, executive director, who talked about the consequences of using fossil fuels.
“Many of our members talk about soot in their homes, odors and gassy smells in the middle of the night. There are high rates of cancer and birth defects near Tonawanda Coke and Huntley,” she said, referring to two large plants on River Road in the Town of Tonawanda, Huntley is a coal-burning power plant; Tonawanda Coke was found guilty last month of polluting the air and the ground.
The coalition helped organize the community to fight for clean air.
Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster used the news conference to recount the history of renewable energy on the Niagara Frontier, especially the hydropower that was harnessed from the Falls about a century ago. He used that history to make a pitch for a renewed effort now.
“One hundred years ago, Niagara Falls was the hotbed of renewal energy in the world. We had many benefits, including scientists like [Nikola] Tesla and [George] Westinghouse working in our area. It produced great wealth in our area, and it also was positive for our region’s image in the world,” Dyster said. “But now there’s an opportunity for us to do more.”
Other groups represented at the news conference included WNY Drilling Defense, Wind Action Group, WNY Peace Center, Riverside Salem United Church of Christ, PUSH Buffalo, WNY Council for Occupational Safety and Health, Re-ENERGIZE Buffalo, Residents for Responsible Government, and Partnership for the Public Good.