Richard Calhoun, a physician and farmer who wanted to build North Carolina’s first commercial wind farm in the Ashe County mountains, conceded defeat this week.
It would cost more money than he can spend, Calhoun said, to do the technical studies the N.C. Utilities Commission demanded. But, he added, “I think I’ve done what I needed to do to get people to think.”
Wind power is on a lot of minds in the N.C. mountains and on the coast, where breezes blow strong and steady. Harvesting them will be key to meeting the state renewable-energy goal that legislators are poised to adopt.
But making that happen in a big way, energy experts say, will depend on untangling red tape and calming neighbors angered by the prospect of towering windmills in beloved, scenic places.
Amid a furor over Calhoun’s proposal, Ashe County commissioners last week banned utility-scale turbines. Touristy Blowing Rock, sensitive to intrusions into its vistas, prohibited windmills of any size in June.
“We just don’t think that’s something people want to look out their windows and see,” said Town Council member Rita Wiseman.
Growing alarm over planet-warming carbon dioxide has state governments looking more skeptically at power plants fueled by coal, which produces more than half of North Carolina’s electricity. In response, policymakers are looking more closely at renewable fuels, from hog-farm methane to wind.
Public acceptance will be crucial to growing the industry, said Glenn Mauney, a Charlotte-based sales director for Wind Energy Consulting & Contracting. The Florida company specializes in smaller installations.
Other obstacles: a state law that prohibits tall structures on mountain ridges and a maze of regulations. As many as 18 government agencies could claim a role in reviewing a wind-farm proposal, wind advocates say.
“We’ve talked to a dozen different wind developers now, and to a person they say, `Just tell us what the rules are,’ ” said Dennis Grady, director of Appalachian State University’s Energy Center.
In Tennessee, where the Tennessee Valley Authority opened the Southeast’s first commercial-scale wind farm in 2000, the TVA will do environmental reviews of any future farms. Pennsylvania, which has seven commercial farms, has a complex process that involves local permits as well as state environmental permits.
A bill before the N.C. House, seeking to smooth the process, sets up a permitting system that takes into account visual, noise and environmental factors. The measure isn’t expected to be acted on this year.
ASU estimates that 12 to 20 small, utility-scale wind farms in the mountains and on the coast could produce 6.5 percent of North Carolina’s electric power. That estimate assumes that turbines wouldn’t be placed near scenic public places such as the Blue Ridge Parkway.
This week, legislators continued to debate a renewable-energy bill that gives the state new incentive to shepherd its wind resources. By 2020, the measure says, renewable fuels and energy efficiency would have to account for 12.5 percent of electric utility sales.
Studies show that it will be hard to reach that standard without contributions from wind power, Grady said.
Apart from commercial-sized wind farms, he said, the N.C. mountains offer thousands of sites that could support “small wind” turbines big enough to feed electricity to the state’s power grid or supplement the power for individual homes or farms.
Ned Trivette, a retired ASU vice chancellor, is the proud owner of the first grid-connected windmill in Watauga County. The 65-foot-tall mast, sunk into a rolling ridge of red clover near Trivette’s white farmhouse in Sugar Grove, went up in January.
It took eight months to get official approval, including that of county commissioners who decided the structure wouldn’t violate the ridge law. Watauga commissioners later created a local permitting process.
The $9,000 device produces electricity equal to about 10 percent of his farm’s power needs, earning Trivette $18 last month. “It’s not a thing you do if you want to get a return on investment,” he said.
His true purpose was to make a personal statement about the potential of homegrown energy. Neighbors have had nothing negative to say.
“I don’t know why people have some aversion to these little windmills,” he said. “They’re much more attractive than a power pole outside your driveway with four transformers on it.”
Commercial wind farms, with their ranks of turbines soaring hundreds of feet into the air, are of both a different scale and a more uncertain future.
Some experts say the 25 to 28 turbines Richard Calhoun envisioned for his Ashe County farm were far too many for the site. Thursday, the Utilities Commission dismissed his application as incomplete. Calhoun said he won’t resurrect it.
That end delighted Gilly and Brenda Macknee, who live on a small farm nearby.
“We’re at ground zero,” said Gilly Macknee, a carpenter and builder. “What he was proposing would have surrounded us by 400-foot-tall turbines on virtually every ridge.”
The couple worried not only about visual blight but health problems from the spinning rotors. They’ve read that flickering light and vibrations can disrupt sleep and worsen the condition of epilepsy sufferers.
Calhoun regarded his plan as a test of the state’s commitment to wind energy. He believes wind turbines can also help save hard-pressed farmers, earning them extra money without selling to developers.
“The timing is right for these projects, and we certainly have the resource in the mountains,” he said. “I just have a hard time understanding why anybody would oppose it.”
By Bruce Henderson
28 July 2007
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