By Susan Marriott

Electricity production from renewable sources, such as wind, solar or biomass, offers an opportunity not just to reduce dependence on domestic or imported fossil fuels, but can also be a driver for creating new manufacturing opportunities for small businesses in the renewable energy supply chain.

Nevertheless, the Erie County Legislature has just decided to join several other communities to oppose one of the largest renewable energy projects to be proposed since New York established its renewable portfolio standard, mandating that 30 percent of New York’s electricity be produced from renewable sources by 2015. In its recent resolution opposing the Great Lakes Offshore Wind (GLOW) Project, the Legislature cited fears of dislodging toxins in the lake bed and threatening wildlife with electrical shorts, among others. These perceived dangers are not supported by studies of a Great Lakes wind energy project, since none of the proposals have gone through the rigorous environmental review process required by state law. In fact, a thoughtful editorial that recently appeared in The Buffalo News stated the following: “When the studies are done and more specifics known, there will be plenty for opponents to sink their teeth into. Until then, the opposition seems to be fighting only a symbol, not the facts”.

In addition to making premature conclusions about hypothetical concerns, the Legislature appears to ignore the potential for small businesses to benefit by becoming suppliers to the GLOW Project. The Buffalo News cites one critic, who stated in a letter to the Legislature: “This wind folly only benefits big foreign companies…it does nothing for the little guy. There are no long-term jobs.” However, the experience of other states, such as Michigan, is just the opposite, and those small, local businesses are reaping the benefits while New York falls further behind. As reported in Crain’s Detroit Business, a survey released recently illustrates the growth in Michigan’s solar and wind industry. The Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) found nearly 200 solar and wind-related companies doing business in Michigan, employing about 10,000 workers. The ELPC’s report found companies ranging from automobile manufacturers that are retooling to build clean-energy components to startups developing new energy technologies. A similar report this month found 150 companies operating in Ohio.

During a time when Western New York is struggling to attract businesses to create new jobs, can local legislatures afford to oppose renewable energy projects for unsupported reasons when other states are taking the lead in this space? Renewable energy projects will continue to become an even more important component of New York’s energy supply mix with the help of renewable portfolio standards and other incentives. Local legislatures should be taking a hard look at opportunities that give Western New York a competitive advantage, rather than buying into premature, unsupported fears of environmental catastrophe.