High on a mountainside outside of Mahanoy City, 13 wind turbines, each taller than the Statue of Liberty, dominate a landscape where veins of coal deep beneath the ground fueled the Industrial Revolution.
To some, the turbines are an eyesore that put birds and other wildlife in harm’s way while making just a small dent in the nation’s energy needs. To others, the white towers and blades are majestic – symbols of technology that bring with them clean energy.
As the debate goes on, the turbines are going up in record numbers – a trend that’s expected to continue as the clean energy industry moves to take advantage of concerns about global warming and rising fossil fuel costs.
The Locust Ridge Wind Farm in Schuylkill County, developed by local entrepreneur Joe Green, who sold it to a multinational company, added 26 megawatts – enough power to supply 6,300 homes for a year – when it went online in June. It’s the only one to go online in the state this year, but at least three more are expected to be operational in the next few months.
Across the country, dozens of others have sprouted; wind power grew by about 35 percent or 4,000 megawatts in 2007, according to the trade group American Wind Energy Association. That’s the most growth ever in this country, according to the group. Despite that, wind power still accounts for only 1 percent of the country’s supply, with about 14,500 megawatts annually.
Christine Real de Azua, spokeswoman for the group, said the rapid expansion – which she and other experts expect to continue – can be attributed to the rising cost of building and running power plants and global warming concerns. She called wind power ”environmental insurance.”
”The fact that this is such a strong year is great news,” Real de Azua said. ”There’s more electricity online that’s clean and from a domestic source. It’s also a source of electricity to create jobs in the U.S.?”
But for some in Schuylkill County who live by the massive towers and face the prospect of more going up, the news is unwelcome. Locust Ridge, which is owned by Iberdrola of Spain, has filed plans with Schuylkill County to add another 50 wind turbines that will follow nearly 12 miles of a mountain ridge that runs into the eastern tip of Columbia County.
John Hetherington of Union Township, who serves on the county Planning Commission, said he and others are upset at the prospect of the tubines going up in their communities. He said some believe they are unsightly, a blemish in their area.
”We sort of like our valley the way it is,” Hetherington said. ”To put up a line of those things up along the whole southern side of the valley, well?”
Despite his complaints, 27 of the 50 turbines have been approved for Union Township.
Iberdrola officials, who announced plans last year to build more than 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy worldwide by the end of 2011, declined comment on a future plan. The company is preparing for an initial public stock offering to pay for its expansion, and Securities and Exchange Commission rules prevent them from talking about future plans.
Hetherington said he may learn to live with the wind turbines if they are needed.
”In my mind, if this will help us get rid of the hold that the oil countries have over us, I can put up with almost anything,” he said.
But Rick Webb, a senior scientist in the University of Virginia’s Department of Environmental Sciences, isn’t so sure wind power, particularly on the mountains of the mid-Atlantic, will help much. Webb participated in a National Academy of Sciences committee that studied wind power and released a report this year that found wind power is growing, but in many places, guidelines for development are lacking.
”I think the potential electrical supply and the potential reduction to other sources of power won’t be great enough to compensate for environmental damages on the ridges,” Webb said, adding he believes offshore development of wind farms would be more useful because there is a more-abundant supply of wind there.
He said the most ambitious estimate by the U.S. Department of Energy suggests wind will supply 4.5 percent of the nation’s energy needs in 2020. And he has a litany of concerns about the cost to get there.
Webb worries trees will be cleared off mountaintops to make way for turbines, wilderness habitats will be disrupted by the turbine sites and thousands of birds and bats would be killed in the blades.
He also questioned how much wind power would reduce emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, noting that 40 percent of the gas comes from electric production, and the rest comes from other sources such as vehicles.
Industry officials say wind energy is just one component of a clean energy plan.
”No one in the industry says wind is the solution,” said Frank Maisano, spokesman for a loosely formed coalition of wind energy companies working on projects in the mid-Atlantic region. ”Those of us who are working to develop it say wind is part of the solution and a viable first step in clean energy.”
Maisano said wind will never replace the huge coal-fired plants that produce electricity around the clock, but said it’s a step in the right direction toward a diverse energy mix. In fact, Schuylkill County has several coal-fired plants, including two along Interstate 81 just south of the wind farm.
”There are no fuel costs in wind,” Maisano said. ”There are no emission costs out.”
He said the electric grid that distributes power in the region is adept at dealing with the intermediate nature of wind power, and the acreage critics say is needed to place turbines is often overstated.
Maisano said as many as 20 projects are coming to Pennsylvania’s mountaintops over the next few years.
”The welcome mat has been placed out in Pennsylvania, certainly with policy and aggressiveness to bring projects there,” he said.
And that’s the way it should be, said Schuylkill County Commissioner Mantura Gallagher. Gallagher said the county, which has a rich history largely defined by the mining industry, will always be loyal to anthracite.
”But when there are alternative methods of creating energy, we need to be in the forefront and take advantage of those opportunities,” she said.
Pennsylvania ranks 14th in the country in wind power production. According to the state Department of Environmental Protection, wind farms in the state will produce 323 megawatts annually by early 2008.
”It helps that Pennsylvania has a geography that is conducive to wind and a state government that has created policies that are moving the clean energy sector forward,” said DEP spokesman Charlie Young.
One policy the state points to is the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard, which was signed into law in 2004 and took effect in 2006. It says that by 2021, 18 percent of the electricity sold in the state must come from renewable or alternative sources. It creates two tiers: one for true renewables, such as wind and solar, and another for alternative sources that have a net environmental benefit for the state, such as waste coal.
It also sets up a credit trading system so that electric distribution companies that don’t have their own alternative energy sources can purchase credits to meet their obligation. PPL Corp. uses Locust Ridge in the system.
Even as the industry grows, Young said the state is working to balance environmental concerns about wind power.
A consortium of state, local and federal government agencies, environmental groups and wind energy officials developed a model zoning ordinance for use by local governments, and the group prompted the state Game Commission to develop a voluntary agreement that has been signed by almost all wind developers in the state.
Under the guidelines, a developer must notify the Game Commission at least 14 months in advance of wind energy site construction so the agency can assess the site and its importance to wildlife. Game Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser said a wind farm in the wrong place could have significant impact on wildlife.
”If it’s in a migratory route for raptors, we could ask them to avoid doing it, or face windturbines in certain direction, or not run during peak migrations,” Feaser said.
Young said the agreement is expected to produce more data on bird and bat populations and the risk of wind development.
”It also gives wind developers a more clear and consistent understanding of what will be required of them in the permitting process,” he said.
By Bob Laylo
30 December 2007
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