As a 24-foot rotor nosed into the breeze over Crabtree Valley, wind power officially flowed to North Carolina’s electric grid Tuesday.
Dr. Louis Mes’ mountain-top turbine became the first wind producer to join N.C. GreenPower, a statewide program that buys electricity made from renewable energy sources such as the sun.
The turbine, capable of powering the Louisiana plastic surgeon’s second home but little more, shows both the potential and the headaches of harnessing the N.C. winds.
Wind whips through 770,000 mountain acres at speeds high enough to make electricity, Appalachian State University researchers estimate. Most sites offer only enough wind, like the breeze that teased Mes’ blades Tuesday, to power individual homes and farms.
Even so, enough wind blows to spin commercial turbines that could power up to 3 million homes, said ASU’s Dennis Scanlin.
“We still have in Western North Carolina some of the highest wind speeds in the United States, if not in the world,” said Scanlin, director of the university’s N.C. Small Wind Initiative.
State law, however, appears to prohibit building tall structures on mountain ridges above 3,000 feet – where the strongest winds blow. Mes had to get special permission to put his 100-foot tower at 3,800 feet.
Watauga County, where ASU is located, adopted an ordinance in August that sets up a permit process for turbines. The university operates seven test turbines on Beech Mountain, selling the power to the Tennessee Valley Authority.
But some neighbors snarl at a horizon with spinning blades.
Two of Mes’ neighbors still aren’t reconciled to his turbine, which was installed in June. A third has dropped a protest, he said.
“We know that tourism is worried about it,” Madison County state Rep. Ray Rapp said at a dedication ceremony for the turbine. “But this is going to make the air cleaner, and that’s what I’m concerned about.”
GreenPower hopes wind and solar power will eventually provide 15 to 20 percent of the energy it buys. For now, more than 90 percent of it comes from methane, a landfill gas from decomposing garbage.
Consumers take part by contributing $4 a month for 100 kilowatt-hours of power (the average house uses about 1,000 kilowatt-hours), money that supports development of alternative energy. Begun in 2003, the program’s 9,500 participants buy renewable energy that’s equal to the output of 16.5 million pounds of coal.
An ardent environmentalist, Mes and his wife, Talitha, built an energy-efficient home that takes advantage of the sun’s warmth. But he’s also “a gadget guy” who found the thought of capturing the wind on Crabtree Gap irresistible.
“People who live up here and have the resources should use them, that’s the way I look at it,” he said. “My hope is that other people will see this is not threatening and do the same thing.”
Two more turbines, in Watauga County and on the Outer Banks, are expected to join GreenPower soon, said spokesman Jeff Brooks.
Even though the fuel is free, their owners won’t reap riches.
If Mes can produce more wind-generated electricity than his home can use, he will sell the excess to the local electrical cooperative. GreenPower also pays 6 cents per kilowatt hour – the turbine is expected to generate 14,000 kilowatt-hours a year – as an incentive to alternative-energy producers.
But because of the hardware involved, selling his excess power to Haywood Electric Membership Corp. will actually cost Mes a dime per kilowatt-hour.
He shrugs it off. The $40,000 he has invested, Mes figures, would buy a nice pickup and bass boat. The doctor chose to throw his money to the wind, and drive an old truck.
By Bruce Henderson
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