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Gamesa tries out spot for wind farm

About a mile into the woods on the Altoona side of Skyline Drive near Route 36, Gamesa Energy has placed a slender 100-foot tower to test the wind.

The little spinning anemometers at 50, 75 and 100 feet are like a child’s toys.

But, if the winds are favorable during the next three months, the 40 windmills the company may ask to place on nearby Chestnut Flats will be much bigger.

The three blades each may be 140 feet long, occupying an area while spinning the size of a football field – reaching at their apex a height of 440 feet, said Erik Foley, director of the Center for Collaborative Conservation at St. Francis University in Loretto.

Gamesa paid the Altoona City Authority $8,000 for up to three test sites on about 10,000 acres, but it plans only one for now.

It should determine the suitability for windmills on the flats – mainly 10 square miles on the other side of Route 36 to near the Horseshoe Curve National Historic Site.

Logan Township recently zoned the area for windmills after months of study, authority Chairman Maury Lawruk said.

“I’d like to see 30 or 40 [windmills] across that ridge,” he said.

It’s too early to say how many Gamesa may build for this proposed project, said Gabriel Alonso, executive director of Gamesa Energy U.S.A. in Philadelphia.

If findings are favorable, Gamesa still will need approval for the windmills themselves from landowners, mainly the City Authority, municipalities like Logan, Allegheny and Gallitzin townships and the state.

“We have a long way to walk,” Alonso said.

For now, the company is not planning to test the wind on Brush Mountain.

“Too controversial,” Lawruk said.

The authority’s testing contracts with Gamesa include a tract of watershed on Brush Mountain near Kettle reservoir.

“I don’t think anyone wants to see them [windmills] up there,” Lawruk said.

But that doesn’t mean Gamesa won’t consider Brush Mountain in the future, Alonso said.

The Juniata Valley Audubon Society doesn’t oppose windmills on Chestnut Flats, which is part of the Allegheny Front, but it wants to keep windmills off Brush Mountain to the east.

Much of Chestnut Flats has been strip mined and fragmented, the society’s Stan Kotala said.

But Brush Mountain is pristine.

It’s the science, Kotala said:

Blair County’s comprehensive plan has designated the mountain a greenway;

the county Planning Commission has designated it a natural heritage area;

the Pennsylvania Biological Survey has designated it an important mammal area and an important bird area.

Putting a wind farm there would “totally fragment” the forest so it no longer would qualify for those designations, Kotala said.

The turbines each would require three- to five-acre clearings, and there would be a wide road connecting them and substations and transmission lines to take the electricity to the grid, he said.

“Windmills have to be put somewhere,” Kotala said. “The question is where.”

While Kotala cites scientific designations based on studies to bolster his argument, Penn State Altoona biology professor Mike Gannon wishes for studies on which to base his.

He’s a bat expert, and he believes the growing number of windmills in this area could have a catastrophic effect on the populations of the flying mammals.

Wind companies aren’t following the worthwhile but voluntary U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service guidelines, Gannon said.

And deterrent research that wind developers have touted haven’t proven effective yet, he said.

The industry as a whole is working to create the “least possible impact to flying creatures” and the environment in general, Alonso said.

Turbines spin much slower than 20 years ago, which helps, he said.

And Gamesa performs thorough avian and animal studies using radar, Alonso said.

Environmentalists’ opposition to a means of generating electricity that has a reputation for environmental light-footedness could be “the subject of fascinating sociological research,” said Foley, former naturalist for the Audubon Society, which at the state level favors wind power, mindful of fossil fuel generation’s damaging of bird populations.

“It’s driven a stake between different camps,” he said.

Joe Metzgar of the Logan Township Planning Commission, which developed the zoning restrictions, hasn’t felt that relief yet.

Gamesa would have liked access to all the mountain ridges around Altoona, he said.

“It’s not going to happen,” he said. “We have to be careful.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.