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Ashe County proposal raises tough issues  

Wind power would seem to be a necessary component of any strategy by North Carolina to increase the amount of energy produced here from alternative sources. Put simply, there’s plenty of wind in these parts.

The downside is that sections of the state where wind currents are strongest and most consistent also happen to be ones that are heavily dependent on tourism and where there is an understandable priority on protecting natural views. That holds for the coast, and it holds for the mountains.

The issue of whether and how to take advantage of mountain winds now is before the state Utilities Commission. The commission yesterday held a hearing focused on a proposed Ashe County “wind farm” – 25 or so giant turbines that would be built near Creston in the state’s far northwest. It is easy to see why the project has stirred local opposition in an area where vacation-home development is an economic mainstay.

Of course, there is an abiding public interest in finding ways to lessen our dependence on power generated from coal and other fossil fuels. Combustion of such fuels leads to the release of greenhouse gases that have been linked to global warming. The state’s utility companies now rely heavily on coal and natural gas (along with nuclear energy, which has its own environmental problems).

The cost to generate each kilowatt by those means has been relatively cheap. But as technology advances, the cost of alternatives – whether wind, water, solar or bio-sources – promises to come down, and supplies are virtually unlimited. Most alternative sources – wind included – have the added benefit of producing zero air pollution.

As planned, the Ashe County wind farm could generate enough power to serve about 15,000 homes, or roughly the same number Ashe now has. But it’s clear there are some potential show-stoppers – visual obtrusiveness, noise, potential risks to birds, the disruption from service roads and transmission lines.

As an illustration by The N&O’s Woody Vondracek in Saturday’s editions showed, a turbine tower and blades of the size proposed for Ashe would be nearly as tall as the 400-foot Wachovia building in downtown Raleigh. The sheer scale of the turbine complex would amount to a form of visual pollution.

North Carolina has a valuable law limiting construction on mountain ridges. The law was enacted to protect mountain vistas from a rush of residential development, especially big condo projects. It’s not clear whether the wind turbines would be covered, but common sense suggests that building a couple of dozen of them along a ridge would breach the law’s spirit.

North Carolina – and the nation generally, as it tries to slake its thirst for electricity – cannot afford to dismiss any wind power proposal out of hand. Wind offers too much potential as a cheap, clean energy source.

But the Utilities Commission will need to carefully weigh the specifics of individual projects as to location, design and benefits. The kind of hearing and evaluation process now under way regarding the Ashe County wind farm will be crucial. Extra attention will have to be paid to environmental and economic issues that may not be among the commission’s ordinary concerns, so experts in those areas should be called upon.

A state blessed with ample wind resources eventually will want to experiment with using them for the good of its people. But a good idea in the abstract could turn out to be a poor one if it ruined the appeal of a county where scenery is the chief claim to fame.

The News & Observer

newsobserver.com

14 February 2007

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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