Almost 300 wind turbines are slowly turning atop ridges in Cambria and Somerset counties.
Together, they are capable of generating more than 500 megawatts of electricity.
Their presence is part of a changing approach toward energy development in the Laurel Highlands. Coal is still a major force. However, wind, solar, hydroelectric, natural gas and biomass are developing industries. Local governments and businesses are not only trying to harness the power, but also to promote their regions as places for future growth.
“We have sort of branded ourself as the energy county,” said Cambria County President Commissioner Douglas Lengenfelder.
At a recent “State of the County & City” breakfast in Johnstown, Lengenfelder explained that the county’s windmills have the capability to produce more electricity than three local co-generation plants combined. “That’s sort of exciting news, especially for the environmentalists and individuals that are looking for renewable energy sources,” he said.
The first local wind farm – Green Mountain Wind Energy Center – became operational in 2000. Most recently, the Patton Wind Farm, owned by EverPower, became the 13th facility in the Cambria/Somerset region when it went online at the beginning of this year.
“The area’s got very good wind resources,” said EverPower senior director of development Harry Benson.
“It’s been blessed with good wind.”
Development of wind farms has provided financial benefits to municipalities and landowners.
For example, Adams Township receives approximately $130,000 annually from EverPower, which operates two wind farms within the municipality.
“I think it really helps with their budgets, their bottom lines,” said state Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Patton.
Landowners also receive royalties. The money can provide much-needed financial boosts during these hard economic times. The industry has, in some cases, significantly changed the way farmers use their land.
“We’re farming the wind,” said Martin Yahner, a farmer whose property has been in his family for six generations, now includes two windmills in the Patton Wind Farm.
Along with promoting wind, St. Francis University Renewable Energy Center is helping create interest in other forms of power generation.
Thanks to receiving a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Energy for America Program Guaranteed Loan Program grant, the center has scheduled a series of seminars about renewable energy throughout 2013.
A biomass presentation took place at State Correctional Institution-Cresson earlier this year. The college plans to hold a wind event on May 14. Solar, geothermal and micro-hydro presentations are scheduled for throughout the summer.
“There are underutilized resources here,” said Michael Sell, the center’s coordinator. “We hopefully can show people new possibilities and how to utilize something they didn’t know could be useful.”