A public forum in Spruce Pine Thursday evening, aiming to provide clarity on developing wind energy in Western North Carolina and begin to foster a consensus among area residents on the controversial issue, left a room of more than 80 people still in disagreement.
Seven panelists, including Mitchell’s state elected officials Senator Joe Sam Queen and Representative Phillip Frye, opened the discussion at 6 p.m. in Mayland Community College’s Sam Center Auditorium with first addressing the economic opportunities and environmental implications of allowing wind turbines access to mountain ridge tops.
The forum, inspired by Senate Bill 1068, which documents how to license and permit wind facilities in North Carolina, saw four power point presentations, a dozen questions and comments from the audience, and little sign of compromising on a bill that severely limits wind turbines in the mountains.
The bill, as it stands, limits windmills to 100 feet tall and only to power individual homes in Western North Carolina, in the interest of preserving the state’s 1983 Ridge Law. Permits for commercial wind facilities in coastal counties can be obtained from the respective county’s Board of Commissioners.
“This is really not a ban on wind energy,” said Dennis Scanlin, technology professor at Appalachian State University specializing in wind energy. “It would allow it in valleys and on ridges, but the problem is there are really not adequate winds in those locations to justify spending any money on a turbine. The only good resource we have in WNC is on the ridges.”
Since the bill passed the Senate and was introduced on the House floor before legislators adjourned on Aug. 11, it is eligible for the General Assembly’s short session, to begin on May 12, 2010.
“The benefits of maintaining the ridge law the way it is, is Mitchell County is in sort of middle of the triangle of three of the most important mountaintops in Western North Carolina: Grandfather, Mitchell, and Roan Mountain,” said Queen, who voted in favor of the bill. “It is a combined region with its beauty and distinct sense of place that adds a great deal of value to a lot of the sectors of our economy.”
Preserving the ridge law would have its sacrifices, and a majority of the night was spent discussing if the benefits of wind energy on the local economy and power supply outweigh the costs of giving up a ridge top.
If the bill passed, it would end the possibility of a 20-1.5 megawatt turbine Acciona wind farm on top of 5,300 acres of Penland Bailey and Spruce Pine ridge behind KT Feldspar and Unimin mines.
The project has been reported to bring more than 100 short-term and as many as seven long-term jobs to the county.
“In Mitchell County we don’t see 100 jobs come in at a time; We are tickled to death to get two or three jobs at a time,” said Frye, who is proposing an amendment to the bill in the short session to allow for a pilot commercial wind farm in Mitchell County. “I am willing to put the ridge law to the test. If the people want wind farms in specific places, then by golly it is time to change that. Laws were made to tweak and make right for people.”
Jan Hamilton, president of the Mitchell County Democratic Women Organization, agreed.
“What is wrong with giving our county a chance to have a few jobs,” asked Hamilton. “I don’t care if it is four. We are economically depressed, and if we had some time to develop this and have an idea about it, at least it would give our people a sense of excitement. We have no factories. No (business) wants to come here. I grew up here and love my county, but we have to make a living. What good are our beautiful mountains if we cannot afford to live here?”
Others felt the risk did not justify the means.
“I do not know how big a sacrifice this is,” said Jason Warner of Ingals. “It is a potential sacrifice, and it is one that is far more important than two jobs. We need to do good things in economic development for jobs.”
Queen felt the biggest commercial place for wind power will be on the east coast, and the mountains were not worth the sacrifice.
“The number of jobs that actually are created by doing a project similar to what is being proposed is relative to the amount of jobs in a small coffee shop,” Queen said. “Most of the work is done by outside contractors. That has been the pattern all over the country, and is the nature of the industry.”
Scanlin said although some work is done by outside contractors, the project would spark the local economy.
“One of the other things to consider is not only the direct spending, but the indirect, induced spending,” Scanlin said. “For example, the concrete and gravel comes from local companies. Contractors will be buying stuff locally from hardware stores, and restaurants.”
Blayne Gunderman, east coast environmental manager for Acciona, said the largest benefit on the economy from the wind farm is lower taxes.
The proposed $80 million project in Spruce Pine would provide Spruce Pine and Mitchell County with nearly $200,000 in tax revenue.
“Many times with wind projects in rural areas the tax base goes up significantly, and people’s taxes go down. That is a plain fact,” Gunderman said.
Scanlin said the ridge tops is where maximum potential for wind energy production exists.
The proposed ridge, and others across Western North Carolina, have been reported by the U.S. Department of Energy to provide class six and seven winds, the most powerful available.
“Theoretically we could produce all the energy we need,” Scanlin said. “With 2,000 miles of ridge line, and three quarters of a million acres of windy land in Western North Carolina. We could produce a good percentage of our electricity with wind power, there is no doubt about it.”
Paul Quinlan, of the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, said while a region may be able to become self sustaining, it is not likely.
“It has become very easy to think about energy in a regional perspective, but that’s not really how it works at the end of the day,” Quinlan said. “Primarily our grid are set up by Duke and Progress Energy, and they manage most of it. You can look at it at a state level, or at a regional level, but electrons go into the gird and they flow in all directions. The big picture is as a state we need to be thinking about where we are going.”
Daniel Boone, a wind policy analyst for the Appalachian region, said it was unlikely, and the most effective way to get the area’s energy supply is through nuclear power.
“North Carolina is not an island,” Boone said. “You are part of the United States, and electricity can come just as easily from the farmlands of Illinois and Indiana where the winds are much better and cost of construction would probably be less. It is not just that we don’t want wind, it is just is it going to be worth sacrificing a resource here when there is 300,000 megawatts of wind projects throughout the country.”
A North Carolina law passed in 2007, mandated power companies must meet 12.5 percent of its retail electricity demand through renewable and efficiency by 2021 or face fines, which could equate to higher rates for customers.
Quinlan said companies can buy a quarter of that requirement from out of state. Besides that they are required to get a certain amount of the energy from solar, poultry litter, and hog waste. The rest can be obtained from wind.
Other options, such as hydro electricity, were discussed by the panel, but they said other means produced a fraction of energy wind could.
Queen said local ordinances developed before Senate Bill 1068 is passed, will have to function within the boundaries of the statewide ordinance.
“Why would anybody be scared of a pilot project when it holds this kind of potential for Western North Carolina,” Frye asked. “Pilot projects are used in the field of education, mental health, and government to let people know whether or not something is viable. Why be scared of letting it take its chances of being successful or not?”
Gunderman said a video visual simulation can be put up for people to see what a wind turbine would look like on the ridge during the development process. The development process is held to do studies on the farm before construction.
Gunderman advised the community to be united on the issue, before it gets that far.
“I can honestly tell you that the biggest detriment that I have seen in trying to partnership with a town and work with them is that this has the potential to pull a town apart and divide them,” she said. “There will be people on both sides, and they get very passionate about the issue. If a town hasn’t really thought it out, it can really pull it apart.”
While some people remain uncertain, the Spruce Pine Town Council and Mitchell County Board of Commissioners, Chamber of Commerce, and Economic Development Commission are all on board. As well as neighboring County Commissioners.
“Whether we do wind mills or whether we don’t, what I’m all about is letting the people of Western North Carolina decide,” said Avery County Commissioner Glenn Johnson. “Not the people in Raleigh. Not the people in Washington D.C.”
The bill will open in the N.C. House Committee on Energy and Energy Efficiency in the sort session, before it goes to the floor for a vote. To contact Representative Frye call, 765-4925. To contact Senator Queen call (828) 452-1688.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding