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The mountain counties of Northwest North Carolina would probably generate a large part of the state’s renewable energy.
But residents in Ashe and Wilkes counties have already shown this year that reaching the proposed green-energy goals won’t come easily.
A proposal to build a wind farm on a ridge in Ashe County set off a storm of protest this year, with opponents saying that the giant turbines would ruin sweeping mountain vistas, killing tourism and housing markets.
And a proposal to build a poultry-litter plant in a northwest county – Wilkes, Surry or Alexander – faces opposition.
It has the support of farmers, who want an alternative to spreading manure and bedding on fields, but environmentalists say that burning the litter would produce too much air pollution.
Lou Zeller of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League supports the wind-energy proposal but is fighting the chicken-litter plant. Last week, he asked legislators to remove the poultry-litter provision from the bill.
“We look at things on the issues of public health and the pocketbook issues,” Zeller said. “On both bases, wind power passes muster. With the poultry waste, the more you look into it, the worse it looks.”
Burning poultry litter to generate energy has a short track record in the United States. The nation’s first such plant, which burns turkey litter, opened last month in Benson, Minn.
It has already provided environmentalists with ammunition. Zeller said that a comparison of air-quality permits for the Benson plant and Duke Energy’s newest coal plant proposed in Cliffside shows that the poultry plant is dirtier than coal, sending out higher levels of particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and other pollutants.
Rupert Fraser, the president and chief executive officer of Fibrowatt LLC, proposes to build three poultry-litter plants in North Carolina. In addition to a plant in one of the three Northwest counties, the company is also considering plants in central and Eastern North Carolina. He said that it’s not valid to compare a current plant like Benson with one that won’t come on line for at least several years because technology is changing.
“We’re entirely happy to be compared to coal because we are cleaner than existing plants and will be cleaner in the future,” Fraser said.
Fraser’s father was a pioneer in developing three poultry-litter plants in the United Kingdom; the first went online in 1992. Fraser says that those plants have proven safe. He said that the plants here will help farmers and be environmentally friendly.
Wilkes officials had been courting the Fibrowatt plant for a site in North Wilkesboro’s industrial park, but they changed the site after realizing that the plant’s 300-foot smokestack would be directly in the approach to the county airport.
Don Alexander, Wilkes County’s economic development director, was among a local group that visited the UK plants last summer. A negative-air-pressure system is designed to keep odors inside the plants.
“We all put our senses to work,” he said. “This (UK) plant is an incredibly efficient, well-run, clean facility. Both facilities we saw.”
Wilkes’ proposed site is now on land next to the industrial park, nearly a mile away from the airport’s approach path, Alexander said, where forested, hilly land would nearly hide the smokestack.
Fraser said his company hopes to make a decision by the end of the year on where its plants would be built in North Carolina.
Controversy over a proposed wind farm is raging in Ashe County, where commissioners are trying to work out limits on wind-energy farms.
Commissioners quickly adopted regulations last February in anticipation of a Raleigh hearing about the proposed wind farm. With the wind farm’s next hearing before the N.C. Utilities Commission scheduled for Aug. 8, county commissioners are completing the county’s regulations.
Ashe County commissioners will hold a public hearing today about proposed changes to the county’s new regulations on wind energy. At an emergency meeting Friday, the consensus among county commissioners was to limit wind-turbine heights to 199 feet, measured to the top of a blade tip. Commissioners also agreed to change a setback requirement so that a commercial wind farm would have to be at least 1,000 feet from an adjacent property line.
“Our goal is to protect the ridges of Ashe County,” Maria Whaley, a member of Friends of Ashe County, said after the meeting. “We don’t want another Sugar Top.”
Public outrage over Sugar Top, an Avery County resort on top of a mountain, led to the 1983 passage of North Carolina’s Ridge Law, which protects certain ridges from tall structures.
Among other issues, the Utilities Commission is looking at whether the ridge law bans large-scale wind turbines.
Last month, Blowing Rock became the first local government to ban windmills. Town leaders said they support renewable energy but want to protect views and the town’s tourist-based economy.
Whaley says that other potential wind-farm developers are monitoring what’s going on in Ashe County.
“They’re watching to see what happens so it’s very important we act responsibly and look at the long-term effects,” she said.
The proposed wind farm in Ashe county would be the first commercial wind farm in North Carolina. But this week, the State Energy Office and other groups will have a town meeting in Morehead City about wind energy on the coast. A meeting is set for August in the Outer Banks.
The study prepared for the Utilities Commission said that wind power in both the mountains and offshore would be needed if the state tried to get at least 10 percent of its electricity from renewable sources alone.
But the future of the proposal for the Ashe wind farm is unclear because of several issues, including the Ridge Law. Also, a preliminary study has shown that the developer has enough land for only about six turbines – about a quarter of what’s proposed.
On July 9, Friends of Ashe County filed a motion asking the Utilities Commission to dismiss the application because the developer missed a deadline to submit additional information to the commission. On Friday, the presiding commissioner of the Utilities Commission filed a motion giving the wind-farm developer until July 25 to show why its application should not be dismissed.
Steve Owen, the president of the Appalachian Coalition for Just and Sustainable Communities, said he’s seen wind energy mischaracterized in the mountains, especially by coal and the real-estate industries.
But he says he’s encouraged by the discussion about the energy bill. He also said that whatever happens with the proposed Ashe wind farm, at least it’s ignited a debate about the issue.
He has testified in support of the wind farm, but now he says he thinks that a smaller wind farm might be better.
“We do need to think about issues of scale and what is appropriate,” Owen said. “The biggest of the big, maybe we don’t want them, but there is some kind of sweet spot about what is appropriate.”
By Monte Mitchell
16 July 2007
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