Ben Massey Jr. spends his weekends tending grapes and Christmas trees amid the serenity of the Appalachian Mountains.
To protect those pristine peaks, the Raleigh physical therapist is joining the fight to prevent the harvest of one of the most abundant energy resources: wind.
Less than a half-hour from Massey’s Grape & Needle farm, a former Ashe County commissioner is proposing to put up 25 to 28 wind turbines that would light up about 15,000 homes. The turbines would rise about 250 feet above the ridge tops, each one taller than the 17-story SunTrust Bank tower in downtown Durham.
“The main problem is how unsightly it’s going to be for our beautiful mountains,” Massey said. “Who in the world would want to build a home underneath those towers that constantly go ‘whoop, whoop, whoop?’ ”
As state officials consider alternatives to nuclear power and coal-fired plants, the wind farm proposed in Ashe County underscores the challenges renewable energy must overcome.
The state Utilities Commission has scheduled a public hearing on the proposed wind farm Tuesday in Raleigh, and will issue a ruling within 90 days.
North Carolina’s windiest areas – the Appalachian Mountains and along the Atlantic seacoast – depend on tourism and are ecologically sensitive.
To some, building wind turbines in the bluffs is an environmental sacrilege, like diverting rivers to build hydroelectric dams. Giant whirling blades also pose a threat to wildlife, particularly flying bats and birds.
Other alternative energy sources, including solar power, also have drawbacks, such as higher costs that public officials must weigh.
Scores of opponents have rallied against the proposed wind farm at public meetings in Western North Carolina, while advocates contend that nonpolluting wind energy is essential to combat global warming and preventing radioactive nuclear waste.
No small matter in this dispute is the meaning of the state’s 1983 Mountain Ridge Protection Act, known as the ridge law, which limits development on mountain ridges. The law includes an exemption for wind mills, but there’s a dispute about whether the exemption applies to commercial-scale wind farms.
The Public Staff, which is the consumer advocacy arm of the utilities commission, has recommended that the commission deny the wind farm application, based on a 2002 ruling by the state Attorney General that the ridge law does not allow wind farms.
The utilities commission often follows the Public Staff’s recommendations. But in this case, the Public Staff is suggesting that many considerations weigh in favor of the proposed wind farm. Chief among them: Harnessing wind power is essential if the state is serious about adopting alternative energy on any meaningful scale.
The Public Staff has gone so far as saying that it would recommend the wind project if the utilities commission decides that the Ridge Law allows wind farms, said Robert Gruber, Public Staff’s director. “Wind energy could help the state meet its energy needs without contributing air pollutants,” Gruber said.
The state’s mountains offer about 1,000 megawatts of feasible wind energy – equivalent in power output to a nuclear plant – according to a recent study done for the state. The study also concluded that North Carolina could derive 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources – if the state taps wind power on a commercial scale.
One proposal pending in the General Assembly would require the state to generate 20 percent of its electricity from alternative sources; another proposal would require 10 percent.
About two dozen states have such programs, requiring electric utilities to use wind, solar, wood waste and other alternatives.
The wind farm, proposed on family owned land by Ashe County doctor and Christmas tree farmer Richard Calhoun, would generate 50 megawatts of electricity, qualifying as one of the largest wind farms in the Southeast.
Calhoun did not return calls seeking comment. If he loses before the utilities commission, he could appeal to a state court and set up a broader legal fight about the ridge law.
Other than environmental concerns, another significant drawback to wind energy is that electricity generated by wind power is available one-third of the time – only when the wind is blowing.
Despite the demand for renewables from environmental activists, only one such group has come out in favor of Calhoun’s wind farm proposal: the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League in Glendale Springs.
“It’s terribly frustrating that the other groups are not four-square behind wind energy and seem afraid of something that is far and away a better solution than anything else to global warming, which is a massive crisis,” said Louis Zeller, the clean-air coordinator for the Blue Ridge group.
Officials at many environmental groups say that the ridge law should be interpreted to allow some large-scale wind farms, but on a limited basis. They insist that developing wind farms along the Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smoky Mountain National Park and other protected areas should be forbidden forever.
“Let me tell you, our organization was prepared not to support this project if it would set a bad precedent that could set us even farther behind with wind power in this state,” said Stephen Smith, executive director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy in Asheville. “We’re not going to go into this blindly.”
Stephen Kalland, director of the N.C. Solar Center at N.C. State University in Raleigh, said that even if Calhoun’s project is deemed a bad idea, proposals to build new nuclear and coal-fired plants might force a review of the Ridge Law.
“Many renewable energy advocates feel it’s absolutely ridiculous for the Ridge Law to prohibit wind power when we have so much smog up in the mountains that you can’t see them half the time,” he said.
IF YOU GO
Should the state allow a wind farm with 25 to 28 turbines in the Appalachian Mountains?
Richard Calhoun – an Ashe County doctor, Christmas tree grower and former county commissioner – is proposing to build the project on mountain land owned by his family in the northwest corner of North Carolina. The proposed wind turbines would be between 250 feet and 300 feet tall.
The state Utilities Commission will hold a public hearing and accept statements from the public 9:30 a.m., Tuesday in Room 2115 of the Dobbs Building, 430 N. Salisbury Street in Raleigh.
For more information and directions, call the utilities commission at (919) 733-7328.
For questions about the application, call the Public Staff, (919) 733-2435.
The N.C. Mountain Ridge Protection Act was adopted in 1983 in reaction to the construction of the 10-story SugarTop Resort Condominium in the Appalachian mountains.
The law prohibits the construction of buildings or structures more than 40 feet tall on protected mountain ridges. It exempts chimneys, flagpoles, flues, spires, steeples, belfries, cupolas, antennas, poles, wires and windmills.
In 2002, state Attorney General Roy Cooper issued a legal memorandum interpreting the ridge law to prohibit commercial-scale wind farms. Although it does not carry the weight of a court ruling, the memo has created a barrier for advocates of wind power in the state.
The memo was sent to the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was planning to build 13 to 16 wind turbines, soaring to 300 feet with rotors extended, on a 4,400-foot ridge near the North Carolina border. The TVA later moved the project more than 100 miles away.
By John Murawski
(919) 829-8932 or firstname.lastname@example.org
10 February 2007
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