Deep in this corner of Appalachia, where clunky trucks brimming with coal rumble down winding roads and miners blast away at black seams miles underground and atop mountains, Scott Sykes is looking to wind as a way to power his native coalfields.
His company is evaluating several sites in Eastern Kentucky to find a home for a wind farm, in hopes of delivering electricity to roughly 65,000 homes within the next five years.
It’s a risky endeavor, especially in a region known for its rugged terrain and reliance on coal. After all, most states that have seen success in developing wind energy as a renewable resource sit west of the Mississippi River, where the land is flatter and exposed to consistent winds.
“Kentucky has some potential for developing wind energy, and that potential lies in Eastern Kentucky,” said Sykes, president of Genesis Development of Kentucky LLC. “This isn’t a pipe dream.”
Sykes, a native of Pike County and grandson of a coal miner, knows his potential wind farm runs counter to the coal-mining culture.
“I have a huge loyalty to coal being raised here,” said Sykes, who formerly worked with the Pikeville-Pike County Tourism Commission in Kentucky and Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce in Tennessee. “But if we are doing something new to further our standard of living, I think people will support that.”
Energy officials say there are no commercial or utility wind farms so far in the state.
A few other Appalachian states have made strides in attracting wind-power developers. Pennsylvania has six commercial wind farms operating and another in the works, and West Virginia has one running and two proposed.
Maryland’s Public Service Commission approved two western Maryland wind farms in 2003 and is considering a third, though none have been built.
Most of these projects are along the Allegheny Front, an Appalachian mountain ridge that includes the Eastern Continental Divide. Strong, relatively steady winds at elevations approaching 5,000 feet make the Allegheny Front attractive to wind-power developers.
The problem for most of Kentucky is that the vast majority of the state sits outside of the front, faring poorly in federal studies tracking wind speed and consistency.
“It is novel for Kentucky to be experimenting in wind power,” said James Bush, program manager at the Governor’s Office of Energy Policy.
Bush pointed to a map by the Department of Energy that classifies the strength of wind power, on a scale of 1 to 7, across different states and regions within the United States.
The study classified most of Kentucky as a 1, meaning it had little to no wind power. Southeastern Kentucky received a 2, and a thin area bordering Virginia (along the Allegheny Front) fared better with a 3.
The overall DOE assessment indicated that Kentucky would be a poor place to set up wind farms, and no further government studies on its wind power were conducted, Bush said. Sykes has narrowed his search to a handful of counties in Eastern Kentucky that fall along the Class 3 area.
The top five states for wind energy are North Dakota, Texas, Kansas, South Dakota and Montana, respectively, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
Bush said developers in Kentucky are pursuing other types of renewable energy such as agricultural waste, or biomass, and hydropower, which are abundant in the state. Coal-to-liquid technology is also attracting investors. Since wind energy has the least potential, the state has no plans to offer incentives for developing it.
Nationally, renewable sources of energy make up only 10 percent of the electric sector, according to the Energy Information Administration. Hydropower makes up 75 percent of that contribution, while wind is 9 percent.
Coal remains an energy leader, supplying 53 percent of the nation’s electricity.
It’s unlikely that wind power will pose a threat to coal in Appalachia, though it may trouble some, said Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.
“Some of the coal folks, it would bother them as a perceived threat to their livelihoods – that here in the heart of the coalfields there’s a technology to replace the electricity provided by coal,” Caylor said.
However, he added, “We need all the electricity we can get, and we need to look harder at our alternative forms of energy.”
Several variables make cost-benefit analysis of renewable resources difficult, experts say.
“Wind energy comes when the wind blows, solar comes when the sun shines and biomass is hard to gather,” said Fred Mayes, a renewable energy expert with the EIA.
Glenn Schleede, head of Energy Market and Policy Analysis, Inc., in Reston, Va., added that the life span of today’s wind turbines is unknown, making long-term calculations inaccurate.
However, Frank Stern, an energy analyst with New York-based PA Consulting Group, called wind “one of the more competitive resources out there.
He said technology has improved significantly in the past 10 years and that larger, taller turbines have allowed wind farms to capture steadier wind flow and generate greater output, he said.
The technology is expensive. A small 25-turbine wind farm can exceed $50 million – but there’s no additional cost for fuel.
Sykes said the ideal locations for wind farms in Eastern Kentucky are reclaimed strip mines, which are both high yet flat enough to support dozens of turbines.
His goal is to set up a wind farm with about 40-50 turbines within the next five years, generating 100 megawatts of energy to serve 65,000 homes.
By Samira Jafari