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Attorney general investigates developers -- Two New York wind companies accused of improper practices

New York's state Attorney General began an investigation last month into two wind power project developers on suspicion of improper dealings with public officials and anti-competitive practices in the United States' Northeast. Subpoenas were served on First Wind (formerly known as UPC Wind) of Newton, Massachusetts, and Noble Environmental Power of Essex, Connecticut. Both companies have been developing wind projects at an accelerating pace in the Northeast, particularly in New York.

New York state Attorney General Andrew M Cuomo began an investigation last month into two wind power project developers on suspicion of improper dealings with public officials and anti-competitive practices in the United States' Northeast. Subpoenas were served on First Wind (formerly known as UPC Wind) of Newton, Massachusetts, and Noble Environmental Power of Essex, Connecticut. Both companies have been developing wind projects at an accelerating pace in the Northeast, particularly in New York.

"They are part of an investigation into whether companies developing wind farms improperly sought or obtained land-use agreements with citizens and public officials; whether improper benefits were given to public officials to influence their actions, and whether they entered into anti-competitive agreements or practices," states Cuomo's office. It reports receiving numerous complaints regarding the two companies from citizens, groups and public officials in eight counties alleging improper relations between the companies and local officials and other improper practices.

Typically, subpoenas order a person or company to testify before the ordering authority or provide physical evidence to the authority, or face punishment. "We have received it and we are cooperating fully with the Attorney General's office," says John Lamontagne of First Wind. Noble Environmental Power declines to comment.

In New York, First Wind operates a 20 MW project, with a 125 MW project under construction in Cohocton and another 54 MW plant in advanced development elsewhere. In the past year, Noble brought online its first wind projects, all in New York. The Bliss, Clinton and Ellenburg projects total 282 MW. The company also broke ground in June on four more wind projects in the state, totalling 341 MW, and has another 220 MW in advanced development.

The wind industry activity is only some of that witnessed by New York citizens over the past two years. Wind power capacity in the state has doubled in that period to more than 700 MW and dozens more projects are in process, with 7 GW of applications in the queue for access to the grid. Much of the action is in the rural north, where communities have frequently welcomed new revenues from wind farming and the boost to local economies that results. But pockets of acute local resistance have also formed because of the proximity of many wind projects to residential housing.

Intimidation

Some of the background for Cuomo's investigation was last month revealed by the New York Times, which referred to "an epidemic of corruption and intimidation" as the wind industry secures project sites. The newspaper reported examples of town officials making decisions on wind farm construction permits while having a financial interest in the project or company behind it, including one instance of an official passing a zoning law for wind power and then taking a job with a company benefiting from the legislation.

Lack of state law for control of wind development may be to blame, suggests the Times. "This vacuum of regulation at the state level leaves officials in small towns, where wind is very much a new industry, to work out zoning and other wind regulations at the local level where some parties may have conflicting interests," it writes. The article demonstrates how the arrival of the wind industry has bitterly divided otherwise close-knit communities.

First class

No controversy on the scale of that in New York has emerged in Maine, another Northeast state where First Wind and Noble are active. Pete Didisheim, director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the state's largest environmental advocacy organisation, says both companies have been "first class operations" in his state. Didisheim has met with company representatives on many occasions and has toured project construction sites.

First Wind brought a 42 MW project online last year, the largest now in New England, and is well underway constructing a 57 MW wind plant there. "Their in-state staff working in Maine are terrific," says Didisheim. "Their approach to projects in the state has been as professional and strategic as any developer. They have also made some good decisions when they had options to team up with out of state companies, they instead teamed with in-state companies."

Didisheim says First Wind partnered with Reed & Reed Construction, which was able to buy large cranes for wind turbine erection. "They've been able now to develop a whole wind services wing in their company, so they now have a market niche there and are being sought after by a number of projects in the region." He points out that First Wind has "snapped up some real high calibre people," including Kurt Adams, the former chairman of Maine's Public Utilities Commission.

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