An Ashe County man trying to build a commercial wind farm in Creston said yesterday that he doesn’t have the money to continue to do studies requested by the N.C. Utilities Commission.
Richard Calhoun of Northwest Wind Developers is asking for conditional permission to move forward with the project, but he said that his application could be dismissed before an Aug. 8 hearing.
The public staff of the utilities commission is recommending that the project be denied because Calhoun hasn’t submitted the requested information and because it believes that wind turbines violate the state’s Ridge Law, which prohibits tall buildings or structures on protected ridges.
“I thought early on that an individual could make a difference, but to do all the studies before you can get the certificate granted, you have to have such deep pockets,” Calhoun said. “You’d have to be a Duke Power or a Progress Energy.… it’s unfortunate.”
At a utilities-commission hearing in February, commissioners agreed to give Northwest Wind Developers four months to submit additional information, such as transmission needs and specific location, type, model and design of the turbines.
When Northwest Wind Developers missed that deadline, a group fighting the wind farm, Friends of Ashe County, filed a motion asking that the application be dismissed.
The utilities commission gave Northwest Wind Developers until Wednesday to show why the application shouldn’t be dismissed.
In a letter filed with the utilities commission Wednesday, Calhoun asked for a conditional certificate of public convenience and necessity. Without that, he said, he can’t get needed loans.
Robert Gillam, staff attorney for the utilities commission, said yesterday that commissioners will decide “whether that letter is a sufficient showing to avoid dismissal.” Commissioners will meet privately. They’ll issue a ruling if they decide to dismiss the application or they could allow the Aug. 8 hearing to be held.
Calhoun said yesterday that a wind study, site assessment, engineering studies, endangered-species studies and other work would require much more than $100,000.
“For a private individual to fund that and still be denied the ability to do a project, it’s throwing good money away,” he said. “I’m not willing to take that risk.”
Calhoun, a farmer, physician and former Ashe County commissioner, applied a year ago to build 25 to 28 wind turbines on land he owns in Creston. The project is being closely watched because it would be the state’s first commercial wind farm.
The issue has sparked passionate debate in the mountains. Supporters have said the wind turbines provide clean energy that could help solve the nation’s energy problems. Opponents say that the turbines, which can be 300 or more feet tall, would ruin the scenery and harm tourism and housing markets.
Although wind power in Western North Carolina figures prominently in the state’s goals to develop alternate sources of energy, it’s still unclear whether the Ridge Law would allow wind turbines in the mountains. Calhoun said he thinks that it does.
His family has lived in the mountains since the 1840s, and grows Christmas trees and hay, and he raises cattle. Property values have risen dramatically because Ashe County’s beauty has made it a desirable destination for tourists and second-home owners.
Some mountain families struggle now to pay taxes on land that has been in the families for generations. Calhoun said that his proposal is the right thing to do to create clean energy and to give farmers a way to make money and preserve family land.
He said he knew from the beginning that his application faced long odds. Even if the utilities commission would grant permission, he expected a challenge from the N.C. Attorney General’s Office about the Ridge Law.
“I understood it from the start that this was a David vs. Goliath issue, but somebody has to make some noise somewhere to make people start thinking,” Calhoun said.
His biggest disappointment has been with people who have said they want clean energy but don’t want it in their backyards.
“One of these days the lights will go dark, and we will wonder what happened,” he said.
By Monte Mitchell
20 July 2007
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