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Is wind the future for WNC? Myriad of issues surrounds proposed placement of wind farms in the region  

New technology, better engineering and more aesthetically pleasing wind turbines are resuscitating wind power programs across the country

To some, the high-tech windmills are beautiful, impressive, sleek and productive icons, a tribute to the union of human engineering and the gentle breath of Mother Nature. To others they are an eyesore, a potential blight on the ridgetops of the Southern Appalachian, to be avoided at all costs.

To most, they probably fall somewhere in between.

A coalition of six environmental and renewable energy organizations held a press conference in Asheville in late June to stake out and promote that middle ground.

Representatives from the Canary Coalition, Environmental Defense, Western North Carolina Alliance, North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Long Branch Environmental Education Center started a petition encouraging state legislators to support and promote wind power development in Western North Carolina. The message that reverberated around the Asheville municipal building that Saturday morning was that you can have your cake and eat it, too.

“I think we all agree that certain viewsheds need protecting. No one wants wind turbines along the Blue Ridge Parkway or up on Mount Mitchell. But what about views affected by air pollution? By producing clean energy we will be helping in that regard,” said Avram Friedman executive director of the Canary Coalition.

Viewshed issues were responsible for a rancorous public debate last year regarding a proposed Tennessee Valley Authority windfarm in Tennessee along the North Carolina border. TVA had proposed a wind farm composed of 13 to 16 turbines on Stone Mountain in Johnson County, Tenn.

Much of the opposition that eventually scuttled that plan came from neighboring Watauga County in North Carolina. According to reports from the Watauga Democrat, Blowing Rock resident DeNeece Butler led a coalition calling itself Citizens for Johnson County which opposed the wind farm primarily on the basis that destruction of the viewshed “would have a dire effect on the personal enjoyment of my property and on its economical value.”

Butler also stated that the proposal was a “deliberate attempt to circumvent North Carolina’s and Watauga County’s ridge law …”

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper entered the fray on behalf of opponents with a letter to TVA suggesting that they had misinterpreted the state’s ridge law. In the letter, Cooper stated that TVA’s Environmental Assessment “implies clearly, but incorrectly, that the North Carolina Mountain Ridge Protection Act would permit construction of the proposed windfarm in North Carolina. This is not the case.”

Cooper said that while North Carolina’s ridge law made exceptions for structures of a slender nature such as “chimneys,” “spires” and “windmills,” that the windmills referred to were “the solitary farm windmill which has long been in use in rural communities, not windfarm turbines of the size, type or certainly number proposed here, especially when all the turbines would probably be seen together from most viewing locations.”

Amber Munger of Environmental Defense believes that, philosophically, wind power and the state’s ridge law are compatible. “The ridge law is meant to protect the scenic beauty of the mountains. Wind turbines do that by producing clean energy and reducing air pollution. The two are not opposing.”

Part of the message at the Asheville press conference was the need to support a study bill sponsored by Sen. Joe Sam Queen (D-Waynesville) that many hope will help clear the air regarding the pros and cons of the generation of wind power in the state.

“It is my desire to steer an intelligent course. I believe wind power deserves careful study. There is a lot of potential and there are a lot of challenges and issues,” Queen said.

Brownie Newman, executive director of the Western North Carolina Alliance, believes the study is a critical part of the move towards development of wind energy in Western North Carolina.

“This study is needed to set up a process for siting windfarms that will include impacts on tourism and the environment. We need to find a way to protect key aesthetic resources while allowing wind power development,” Newman said.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

“I’m biased. I think they’re magnificent,” said Rick Carson, renewables operation programs manager for TVA. Carson manages TVA’s Buffalo Mountain windfarm prototype in Anderson County, Tenn.

After encountering the organized opposition at the Stone Mountain site, TVA opted for Buffalo Mountain. Carson said the project has been heartily welcomed by the community.

Scott Collins, city executive for Oliver Springs, Tenn., the nearest community to Buffalo Mountain, agrees. “We hope it grows. It’s a great source of clean energy and I haven’t heard a single citizen complaint,” Collins said.

And grow it will. The three-turbine farm will be joined by another 18 newer and larger turbines. The addition will boost the output at Buffalo Mountain from 1.8 megawatts to 28 megawatts. Invenergy of Chicago will develop and operate the new addition.

The new windwills will help TVA’s Green Power Switch (an alternative energy program that allows consumers to purchase renewable energy) meet demand.

“When we began Green Power Switch we had 12 distributors. Now we have 56. We have a lot of demand for green power,” Carson said.

According to Carson, most customers buy two blocks of green power per month. A block is 150 kilowatt hours and costs $4 a month. The normal home uses about 1,250 kilowatt hours per month.

The three present Buffalo Mountain turbines provide enough electricity to power about 400 homes. When the new turbines come on line that will increase to approximately 4,500 homes.

Not your daddy’s windmill

Even Don Quixote might hesitate before tilting his lance and turning his steed toward these imposing 21st-century dragons. The Man of La Mancha never encountered such a windmill. The three turbines at Buffalo Mountain are 215-feet tall with 75-foot-long blades. The 18 new turbines will be 255 feet tall with 100-foot blades.

With the larger size comes increased efficiency. A slight increase in wind produces a significant increase in production. The current towers produce 660 kilowatts each, the new ones will produce about 1.5 megawatts each and some models can produce as much as 3.5 megawatts.

“The technology is amazing. The turbines are beautiful, graceful and quiet. Tourists come to see them. I am really excited about this campaign,” said Gil Melear Hough, program organizer for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Hough called the public meeting regarding the Buffalo Mountain farm a “love fest.”

“To think such a simple structure can produce such a large amount of energy actually gets a lot of people excited,” Hough said.

Construction and siting of these modern marvels is involved and intense. According to Carson, foundations for two of the current Buffalo Mountain turbines are buried 30 feet deep; the third is drilled 17 feet deep in solid rock. Two cranes were required to maneuver and position the tower sections and blades. Because of the expense of construction, wind power producers like to create sizeable windfarms to help defray costs and make the farms more profitable.

Green power or the power of green

Glenn R. Schleede of Reston, Va., maintains a consulting practice called Energy Market and Policy Analysis. Most of his time, though, is spent producing self-financed analysis of government policies and programs he thinks are detrimental to the interests of consumers and taxpayers.

Schleede, the former executive associate director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, calls windfarms “money machines for the utilities. Windfarms provide nice tax breaks that shelter income from other profitable enterprises.”

Schleede said current tax laws allow windfarm owners to write off 60 percent of their total investment, including debt, in the first year. He also noted that West Virginia has given windfarm owners as much as a 90-percent reduction in property taxes.

Florida Power and Light Group, which owns a 44-turbine farm on Backbone Mountain in W.V., is the largest generator of wind power in the U.S. According to spokesman Steve Stengel, FP&L manages 30 windfarms in 10 states across the country. “We own over 1,750 megawatts of production and have plans to add another 1,000 megawatts to our portfolio,” Stengel said.

“We have a fiduciary responsibility to our stockholders. We are a for-profit company. Clearly subsidies and production credits are an important part of the business,” Stengel said.

But Stengel argues that improved technologies are making wind power viable. He said production costs have dropped by 80 percent or so in the last 30 years.

Stengel estimates that FP&L can produce wind-generated electricity for somewhere between 2.5 to 4.5 cents per kilowatt hour.

He said that wind power makes for good public policy because there are no emissions, it is renewable and in many cases it is compatible with current land uses.

The North Carolina Electric Membership Corporation reports that the cost of producing a kilowatt hour in North Carolina is 2.7 cents using coal; 4 cents for nuclear power; and 10 cents for natural gas.

Stengel asserts that the value of federal and state subsidies for windfarms substantially exceed the income from power production.

Is wind power for the birds

Dan Boone is a wildlife biologist from Maryland who has joined with 25 national and regional conservation groups, including the National Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Appalachian Voices and others, who have written a letter to Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton asking that uniform and appropriate criteria for siting and construction of windfarms be established to include impacts associated with bird-turbine collisions. Boone believes that because the windfarms aren’t regulated, avian surveys are simply rubber stamps for the industry.

Most wind energy research finds no significant impact regarding avian mortality associated with wind turbines. Those reports calculate national mortality to be about 2.5 birds per tower per year. However the Buffalo Mountain turbines reported a kill of 7.5 birds per turbine per year. Communications towers are estimated to kill 28.5 birds per year.

“Researchers, often the same ones, come to the projects with the notion that there are no problems, spend a couple of days and find no significant impact,” Boone said.

Scott Gollwitzer, staff attorney for Appalachian Voices in Boone, calls current studies “piecemeal.”

“They don’t look at the cumulative effect of hundreds or even thousands of towers,” Gollwitzer said.

Gollwitzer said that Appalachian Voices wholeheartedly supports green power programs that promote appropriately scaled, environmentally beneficial wind and solar projects and other technologies that ensure a clean, safe energy supply.

“Our concern is about the scale and benefits associated with windfarms and other alternative energy sources,” Gollwitzer said.

The debate goes round and round

Environmentalists at the Asheville press conference in June didn’t deny there are challenges associated with wind power, but they urge people to learn about and weigh the issues. Ned Ryan Doyle, who serves on the board of the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, said people who oppose the visual impact of windfarms should look at them in context.

“People don’t like the way coal-fired and/or nuclear plants look either. But more importantly, what we don’t like is the huge amounts of dangerous air pollution they are spewing out.”

“Wind power may be a small percentage of what the state uses, but it’s part of a bigger picture. We need to focus not only on producing clean energy but push to conserve energy and look at a more de-centralized distribution system.

“If we are going to use electricity in our daily lives, then we have to accept that its production is going to have some impact on the environment. Wind turbines have a minimal impact. Instead of having a smoggy visibility of dead and dying trees for 12 miles in the summertime caused by burning coal for electricity, I’d rather have a clear 95-mile visibility that includes some windmills gracefully turning in the distance …” said Avram Friedman of the Canary Coalition.

On the flip side, Dan Boone says there is not enough wind energy in the east to make a difference. “All they could produce wouldn’t affect the rate at which fossil fuels are being burned.”

By Don Hendershot

Smoky Mountain News

9 July 2003

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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