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Pat Curran of Curran Renewable Energy holds up some of his homegrown power (Photo:  Jasmine Wallace
Pat Curran of Curran Renewable Energy holds up some of his homegrown power (Photo: Jasmine Wallace

North Country looks to home-grown energy, but hurdles remain

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The last few years, state and local leaders have staked a growing part of the North Country's economic future on green energy production. Last year, the state's big Regional Economic Development Council grant to the North Country offered millions of dollars to renewable energy projects from Lyons Falls to Fort Drum. The Adirondack North Country Association has also made clean energy development one of its top priorities.

But big questions remain about the industry's future. Can it compete with traditional sources of energy? Will government subsidies be maintained? Will a growing energy sector actually bring sustainable jobs? Brian Mann has our story.

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Chris Rdzanek, manager of facilities at The Wild Center, with the museum's high tech wood fired boiler (NCPR file photo)

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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Last month, Bill Alexander from Harrisville in Lewis County was one of the business owners who turned up at a meeting of the North Country’s Regional Economic Development Council in Watertown. He currently works installing residential solar panels and he wants to think bigger about green energy.

"What I want to do is put in solar in at least three of the towns [in Lewis County] to be able to lower their overall electric bills," Alexander said. He is part of what you might call an experimental energy renaissance in the North Country. 

For decades, this region has been a net producer of energy, with huge amounts of hydropower generated along the St. Lawrence and other rivers. Now, a growing number of companies are also looking to wind, solar, and biomass. Pat Curran runs Curran Renewable Energy in Massena, a company that turns wood into pellets for heating stoves. "There’s three times as much fiber growing in New York state as being harvested every year.  When you talk about something that's imported [like oil] or something that can be grown right here and harvested annually, I think [biomass] is part of our work force for the future," said Curran.

That optimism has grown into something like conventional wisdom, with state officials and NGOs in the region investing big in green energy. Last year’s Regional Economic Development Council funneled more than $6 million of state grant money to energy projects. Local officials are investing too.  Last month, a town in Jefferson County offered tax breaks to a company that will spend more than $30 million turning an old coal burning plant at Fort Drum into a biomass facility. 

Kate Fish, head of the Adirondack North Country Association, says volatile energy prices are making local energy production more and more attractive. She said, "I think you're starting to see small towns that are looking at the increase in their own energy bills and saying, 'Is this a good use for taxpayer money?' I think we're reaching what you might call a tipping point in the North Country, where it's going from being a fringe activity to where it makes so much sense economically."

A report by the Brookings Institution earlier this year found that investments like these are paying dividends in terms of jobs and local energy savings. Lew Milford, one of the study’s authors, spoke with the Innovation Trail in February and said, "The bottom line here is that a state like New York is showing the way.  It's important to do everything as much as possible, from supporting projects to supporting industries to supporting workforce training."

But even some of green energy’s biggest advocates say it’s important for people to understand that this industry is still in its infancy. Stephanie Ratcliff is head of the Wild Center in Tupper Lake, which generates much of its heat using wood pellets produced locally in Massena. Ratcliffe says the technology is getting better and better.  However, she says the transition to renewables will take time.

"Even if everybody today sort of said, 'We think pellet stoves in homes [make sense], it might take twenty-five years to really move that needle," said Ratcliffe. That transition is complicated by the fact that all of these alternative energy companies are competing against established energy companies: everything from oil to electric.

"Most places that have [low cost] municipal electric, your'e not going to do very well growing [your market].  Same thing is true with places that have natural gas, which is cheap," said Curran. Another problem is that the markeplace doesn’t have a good mechanism to support more environmentally sustainable energy sources.

Often, green energy actually costs more to produce.  Matt Foley operates hydro dams in Wadhams and St. Regis Falls. He said, "We're not putting anything into the atmosphere. We don't have any environmental impact.  But we have to compete with people who are drilling holes in the ground, and extracting stuff and burning it and who are not paying anything for the emissions from this technology, which affects everyone."

There are incentive programs to help homeowners, businesses, and local governments convert to green energy sources, but those programs are often complicated and bureaucratic. Fish, with the Adirondack North Country Association, says programs have to be streamlined. She said, "How do we make access to these programs much, much more legible, accessible, easier to navigate for people? That has to be part of the plan."

Without incentives, this transition will be tough because the capital costs of converting to green energy can be steep, with some residential systems running into the tens of thousands of dollars.  Ratcliffe from the Wild Center said, "I am pretty clear about what it would be so cool to have on my house, solar thermal panels, a pellet furnace.  But just like everyone else, I don't have the capital to install it tomorrow." 

Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that programs supporting alternative energy have been caught up in national politics and the debate over climate change. Earlier this year, House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, questioned whether federal incentives for renewable energy make sense. "More than $10 billion has been spent on this and [Energy Secretary Steven Chu] said it created tens of thousand of jobs, except that there's no evidence to support that," Boehner said.

Debates like these make it difficult for companies and consumers to know what the future will hold, but green energy projects are still moving forward, from a new hydropower dam in Potsdam to the biomass project at Fort Drum. With support from New York state, the Adirondack North Country Association is now working on a regional assessment to find out how much energy production is happening, and how much it’s already contributing to the economy. 

Tomorrow, we’ll profile Lonnie Ford, a homeowner in Saranac Lake who’s made the switch to alternative energy, hearing his home with wood pellets made in Massena.

Tasha Haverty and Jasmine Wallace contributed to this story. We also had help from the Innovation Trail project. 

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