As a clean, renewable and realistic source of alternative energy, wind power has emerged as a favorite technology among policymakers over the past 30 years.
So much so that wind energy has billowed into a growing $7 billion industry, according to figures from the American Wind Energy Association.
In the South, however, where six of the nation’s 10 largest carbon-dioxide-emitting coal-fired power plants are located, and stiff breezes are often scarce, lawmakers have been less willing to embrace the promises of wind power.
Leading the charge in recent debates on a new energy bill has been U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., one of wind energy’s most vocal opponents.
Tennessee is already the site of one of the largest wind farms in the Southeast, and in 2005 a wind turbine parts maker, Aerisyn LLC, established operations in Chattanooga.
So why has Alexander, who has been on the forefront of several key conservation issues, locked gears on this one?
“It’s a puny amount of unreliable power at a very high cost,” Alexander said in an interview Thursday with The Tennessean.
And then there’s the appearance.
“We have 10 million people a year come to the Great Smoky Mountains,” he said. “They don’t come down to see white towers as big as football fields with flashing lights. They come to see the Smokies.”
The issue arose in the Senate in June as proposals were debated that would require utilities to produce 15 percent of their energy from renewable resources. Those initiatives died, with Alexander at the forefront of opposition, but could still end up in the House version of the energy bill.
‘They destroy landscape’
Groups that include the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy in Tennessee say Alexander’s view is misguided.
Some have questioned whether a $1.25 million piece of property Alexander owns on the Massachusetts island of Nantucket has influenced his position on wind energy. U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy and others have fought an offshore wind farm near Nantucket as a threat to fishing and navigation that could sully the view with 25 miles of windmills.
Others point to donations Alexander has received from energy interests, including Atlanta-based Southern Co.’s Employees Political Action Committee. Southern Co., one of the Southeast’s largest utilities, puts more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other U.S. utility. Its Scherer plant near Macon, Ga., for several years has been the nation’s single largest source of greenhouse gases, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Alexander has received about $6,000 from January through June from energy-related political action committees, with $1,000 coming from the Southern Co. group. The greatest chunk – $25,000 – came from the transportation sector.
But Alexander dismisses those factors as having any influence on his wind energy stance.
He said his Nantucket property is on the opposite side of the island from where the wind farm might be built and would not be visible from his lot.
As to whether money from Southern Co. or other utilities affects his viewpoint: “It doesn’t,” Alexander said.
He pointed out that he is the sponsor of a clean-air bill that would limit the carbon emissions from coal-burning utilities – like Southern Co. – and also cap their mercury and other emissions.
The wind lobby has “one part right” about his opposition, Alexander said. He doesn’t want giant, white windmills in his front, back or side yards, he said, “because I think they absolutely destroy the landscape.”
“I’m trying to challenge the environmental and conservation community and ask why they’ve forgotten about the American landscape.”
Mountains have wind
But the 18-windmill farm on Buffalo Mountain in East Tennessee doesn’t taint the Great Smoky Mountain scenery, said Gil Melear-Hough with Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, explaining that few people can even find it.
“It’s on an abandoned strip mine,” Melear-Hough said. “You’re making lemonade out of lemons. There’s not much that will grow there. They have coal mining going on the next ridge over and are tapping natural gas in the same mountain.”
Wind power is the best available technology today that’s cost-effective and clean, he said, adding that solar is competitive but is more expensive.
“I don’t think Tennessee will ever be 100 percent wind power… but can we get 5, 10, 15 percent from wind? Absolutely,” Melear-Hough said.
Wind’s ready-to-go aspect is one reason some see the proposals in Congress as skewed toward that source – to the benefit of the industry and states with strong, widespread winds.
Tennessee’s wind sources reside mostly on the mountaintops and ridges of East Tennessee.
Alexander said the Buffalo Mountain project, which is on one of those ridges, has been disappointing. It was producing energy only 7 percent of the time last August, and somewhere between 19 percent and 24 percent for the entire year, he said.
One official of Invenergy LLC of Chicago, which owns 15 of the 18 windmills on Buffalo Mountain, calls the project “a success.”
“In general, you have a couple of months with lower production,” said Frank Pizzileo, the company’s asset manager, adding that wind slows in summer. “You certainly make up for that during the balance of the year.”
Pizzileo said wind is a popular alternative energy that is being used in many parts of
the world. He declined to offer details about production at the Buffalo Mountain site because the information is proprietary.
A survey commissioned by the company indicates that Tennessee residents support wind energy by a 12-to-1 margin. The random telephone poll was conducted of 1,047 registered voters during two days in June by Telephone Strategies Group.
By Anne Paine
22 July 2007
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding