Published April 17, 2014
A group of School of Architecture and Planning graduate planning students has just handed off a plan that could make Wyoming County in Western New York a flagship for alternative energy development in New York State, if not the nation.
Nestled between the Genesee Valley and the plains of Lake Erie, the primarily rural community is already a hotbed of alternative energy development. Nearly 300 wind turbines rise from its hilly terrain, pumping clean energy to the grid. As the state’s largest dairy producer, Wyoming County has also begun to tap the potential of biogas generation from manure and organic waste. Energy development is now the county’s second largest industry, bringing jobs and building the tax base.
But the trend is not universally embraced, viewed by some as a threat to the county’s primary livelihood and rural charm. National and state energy policy is also volatile, with the future of energy subsidies uncertain. Meanwhile, municipal leaders face complex policy decisions with economic and environmental implications well beyond the county border.
“Energy development is an area of great potential, but it also poses risks to our primary economic engine and land use – farming,” said Art Buckley, AICP, director of planning for the county and an advisor to its 16 town and seven village governments. “Our communities need to be informed and prepared when these industries come knocking on our door.”
Jim Fleischman, former supervisor of the Town of Java in Wyoming County, picked up the phone and called Ernest Sternberg, professor and chair of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning. The challenge was a perfect fit for the program’s graduate planning studio.
“Our graduate practicum, which we informally call a ‘studio,’ is the epitome of learning by doing—of reflective practice,” said Sternberg. “This was a wonderful opportunity for our students to explore a globally significant planning problem right in our backyard.”
Last fall, Assistant Professor Himanshu Grover, PhD, an expert on energy and climate action planning, set to work with nine Master of Urban Planning students to develop an energy plan for Wyoming County. By semester’s end they would hand the county a town-by-town assessment of energy development opportunities along with a step-by-step planning and policy framework.
“There are always winners and losers,” Grover said, underscoring the value of a plan. As one example, farmland can lose its productivity for years when soils are uprooted for transmission lines or roadways are widened to make way for trucks and equipment. A plan can also help host communities proactively negotiate benefits packages with prospective developers.
From the start, Grover’s team set the bar high, envisioning Wyoming County as a model for green economic development through alternative energy. Indeed, the county showed itself progressive simply by pursuing such a plan. With the field still nascent, few precedent local energy plans exist, particularly for rural communities.
Working closely with Buckley and Fleischman, both UB graduates themselves, the students grounded their research in field work, site visits, interviews and public opinion analysis. They also examined the existing planning framework across the 23 municipalities.
The final plan identifies vast potential for new green energy development across the county, but also an inadequate planning infrastructure and mixed public opinion. For instance, while a majority of towns and villages have passed ordinances on wind energy, few address solar, waste-to-energy or natural gas development in their zoning codes or comprehensive plans. Those that have passed laws tend to be communities with vocal opposition.
Taking these factors into consideration, the plan still found room for 235 more wind turbines across 17 square miles of suitable land. And as dairy farms expand to meet increasing demand for yogurt, biogas generation is another area of promise that can turn farms into self-sufficient operations. The county already has the largest biodigester facility in the Northeast. While still viable on a small scale, solar and geothermal developments are less feasible in Wyoming County.
Just the additional wind turbines would almost double the county’s current wind energy production levels. This surge in clean energy would more than offset carbon emissions generated by energy consumption, thereby reducing the county’s overall carbon footprint and climate impact.
“Those environmental returns convert economically, as well,” said Grover. “Offset carbon emissions turn into carbon credits that the county can sell on the market.”
Grover says the planning exercise has also revealed the promise of rural alternative energy development in general. “Rural areas can be pioneers in this area. Alternative energy development can be an engine for their economic growth while generating carbon-free energy for urban areas, where consumption is very high.”
Designed as a practical guide and technical resource, the plan outlines site requirements, costs and energy technologies for each energy type, along with detailed maps of gas fields, wind turbines and energy facilities. The report’s “Planning Walkthrough” provides sample energy ordinances and zoning language on issues ranging from road maintenance agreements to design guidelines for the size and color of wind turbines.
Now in the hands of county officials, the plan will go up for review by its Board of Supervisors, which represents all 23 municipalities.
Buckley says the plan could help attract energy companies to the county. “It makes the process much more transparent. It shows that we’ve thought this through, that we have a vision, and brings a level of certainty to the business.”
Grover’s students, meanwhile, have gained valuable experience in a rapidly evolving field.
“I now have a detailed knowledge base in energy policy and a specialization I can highlight on my resume,” said Matthew Wattles (MUP ’14).
Linnea Brett (MUP ’14) said in addition to the satisfaction that comes from creating a plan from start to finish, the practicum cemented for her one of the most important lessons in planning. “We learned the importance of listening to the client to understand their needs.
We didn’t just come in as the expert.”