A plan to build up to 18 turbines on Roanoke County’s highest mountain has stirred up nearby residents.
DUO, W.Va. – Up on Shellcamp Ridge, a cluster of ramshackle houses and junked cars lingers where a community once thrived on the coal beneath it.
The coal camp of Duo sprang up almost overnight in 1933, when the Raine Coal Co. built rows of identical frame houses for the men who came to work its mine. The coal is mostly gone now, and Duo is little more than a dot on the map that marks a half-dozen or so homes.
But over the next ridge, impossible to ignore, stands something that just might represent a break from dependence on coal, not just here but across the country – a wind turbine nearly 400 feet tall, its white blades spinning slowly in the early June breeze.
The power-generating turbine is one of 67 in a wind farm recently built in Greenbrier County by Invenergy LLC, a Chicago-based company planning a similar, though smaller, project for Poor Mountain in Roanoke County.
Although new to Virginia, wind power is a growing industry in the United States, fanned by a movement to use renewable energy to help reduce pollution from coal-burning power plants.
Steve Lilly can see that argument. The only problem is, he can also see two giant wind turbines from his home in Duo, where he has lived for most of his life.
“For an old mountain man, it’s an eyesore,” said Lilly, a retired coal miner with close-cropped hair and a bushy gray beard.
On a recent afternoon, the turbine’s swoosh, swoosh, swoosh – which sounds something like a giant dishwasher – could barely be heard from Lilly’s front porch, about three-quarters of a mile from the Beech Ridge Wind Farm.
But “the harder the wind blows, the louder they are,” Lilly said. “Sometimes they will wake you up at night in the wintertime. There have been times when I turned the TV up a little bit” to drown out the noise.
More than 100 miles away, Invenergy’s plan to build up to 18 turbines on Roanoke County’s highest mountain has stirred up nearby residents, many of whom share Lilly’s concerns.
At the same time, the Poor Mountain proposal has been backed by six green-leaning groups, including the Sierra Club’s Roanoke chapter and the Roanoke Valley Cool Cities Coalition. Statewide, a recent Roanoke College survey found that 87 percent of the respondents were in favor of expanding wind energy.
So when it comes to gauging public sentiment, how someone views a proposed wind farm may well depend on how close the turbine is to their vantage point.
First in Virginia
During the 1970s, at the height of the energy crisis, the idea of harnessing the wind to produce electricity was born in California.
Today, there are about 850 utility-scale wind farms in 38 states. The facilities can produce more than 41,000 megawatts, enough to power 10 million homes and provide 2 percent of the nation’s electricity, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
Virginia has no commercial wind farms, although a 19-turbine project in Highland County was approved three and a half years ago by the State Corporation Commission. That project seems stalled, and other proposals in Rockingham, Wise and Tazewell counties are in preliminary stages.
Which means the Roanoke County project could be the first of its kind for the state, assuming it clears all of the regulatory hurdles that lie ahead.
Eldon Karr, who moved to the Poor Mountain area in the 1970s for its natural beauty and privacy – “This is paradise,” he said – was conflicted when Invenergy first announced plans for up to 18 windmills.
“Oh, gosh. How can I be against those?” Karr recalls asking himself. “I’ve been green all my life.”
But Karr and other nearby residents have come to oppose the turbines. Among other things, they worry about noise, flickering shadows cast by the turning blades and the impact on views that comes with putting a 443-foot turbine – taller than downtown Roanoke’s Wachovia Tower – on top of a ridgeline.
Opponents formed an organization, Blue Ridge Mountain Defenders, and spoke in greater numbers than turbine supporters at a hearing held in March by the county, which is drafting a zoning ordinance to govern wind utilities.
Some residents have raised concerns that go beyond the “not in my back yard” argument.
The fickle nature of wind makes it an inefficient and cumbersome fit to the power grid, they say, yet the industry continues to grow on subsidies and tax breaks from a government caught up in the green movement.
Some of the opponents’ claims have no scientific basis, said Jonathan Miles, director of the Virginia Center for Wind Energy at James Madison University. He cited reports of illness from the so-called “low frequency noise syndrome” caused by the turbines, and the assertion (not made in Roanoke County) that the windmills make livestock sterile.
Opponents often rely on anti-wind websites that promote “what I would characterize as misinformation,” Miles said. “It’s designed to muddy the waters and to try to influence those who might be on the fence.”
For all the public debate over Invenergy’s plans, the company has yet to submit a formal proposal to the county.
Details are still being worked out with the Federal Aviation Administration, which is concerned that three of the 18 turbines pose a hazard to airplanes approaching Roanoke Regional Airport. (Last week, the FAA ruled that a fourth turbine once deemed a hazard is no longer a concern, based on changes to its criteria.)
Invenergy is also waiting for the board of supervisors to pass an ordinance that may put some limits on the project, such as requiring at least a half-mile buffer between a turbine and the nearest home.
The issue is expected to heat up by late summer, as Invenergy prepares to seek a special use permit from the county.
Blades vs. bats
As dusk fell on Duo the evening of June 1, the two huge turbines visible from the community’s single paved road slowly came to a halt.
At dawn the next day, they start again. The cycle, from April 1 to Nov. 15, is intended to protect the bats that come out at night and are killed when they fly into the turbine’s spinning blades.
The bat protection efforts were not initiated by Invenergy, which would make more money by running its turbines around the clock.
Rather, they are the result of a lawsuit against the company. Concerned about the fate of the endangered Indiana bat, a coalition of environmentalists and wind farm opponents sued Invenergy in federal court in 2009, claiming the company failed to obtain a required permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
By one estimate, up to 111,000 bats will die each year by 2020 in the mid-Atlantic region from either direct collisions with wind turbines or lung damage caused by pressure changes they experience when flying near the moving blades, said Valerie Fellows of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
And windmills kill more than 400,000 birds each year, according to the American Bird Conservancy.
The American Wind Energy Association counters that many more birds perish each year from flying into buildings, cars and power lines – or at the claws of domestic cats.
To win their case, opponents of Invenergy’s Beech Ridge project had to focus on an endangered species.
“Like death and taxes, there is a virtual certainty that Indiana bats will be harmed, wounded or killed imminently by the Beech Ridge project,” Judge Roger Titus wrote in ruling for the opponents.
As a result, Invenergy agreed to turn off the windmills at night, except for the winter months when bats are hibernating, while it seeks an incidental take permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service. The company, which had planned to build up to 124 turbines, also agreed to scrap plans for the ones closest to caves frequented by the endangered bats.
Bill Eubanks, a Washington, D.C., attorney who filed the lawsuit, said the ruling could affect other wind developers.
In Highland County, opponents of a planned wind farm there have threatened legal action if construction goes forward without a permit to protect bats. Rick Webb, a potential plaintiff, said he believes the threat of litigation has scared off prospective investors in the $80 million project, which has shown little visible progress since ground was broken two years ago.
As for the Poor Mountain project, it’s not clear at this point whether an incidental take permit will be necessary, said Don Giecek, business development manager for Invenergy.
Load on the grid
From the top of Cold Knob, sightseers can count 39 of the 67 turbines Invenergy has built in Greenbrier County, spread over 20 miles like giant steel dandelions atop the ridgelines.
Homes are few and far between, one of the key differences between this wind farm and the one proposed for Poor Mountain.
But even when seen from afar, the turbines are an affront to John Stroud, co-chairman of Mountain Communities for Responsible Energy, a local group that opposed the turbines and took part in the legal fight over bats.
In a pastoral valley dotted by communities with names such as Cornstalk, Sunshine and Trout, the windmills stand out.
“When I drive down the valley and I see them, I’m annoyed,” Stroud said. “It’s not something that’s eating away at my heart, but I remember what the ridge used to look like, and it doesn’t look like that anymore.”
Silver scars on the landscape might be more bearable, Stroud said, if the wind turbines made a meaningful contribution to the nation’s power supply. They don’t, he said, and may actually increase carbon emissions.
That argument, made by National Wind Watch and other wind energy opponents, goes like this: Wind fluctuations cause the electricity to enter the power grid in erratic ebbs and flows, forcing other power plants to quickly fire up and throttle back. That variability, the argument goes, can reduce efficiency and increase pollution.
Wind is “more variable than conventional generators, no disputing that,” emailed Paula DuPont-Kidd, spokeswoman for PJM Interconnection LLC, the suburban Philadelphia-based company that manages the grid for a 12-state area that includes Virginia.
“However, several studies … conclude the increased variability is manageable.”
PJM, which likens itself to the grid’s air traffic controller, adjusts for the variations by forecasting that wind farms will produce 13 percent of their generating capacity. Also, the company monitors data from wind farms by the minute and adjusts the electricity flow accordingly.
As for the argument that wind-based electricity makes power plants more inefficient, that’s not happening in the region served by Appalachian Power Co., company spokesman Todd Burns said.
Utilities in other parts of the country that rely more on wind, such as Texas, have had ramping issues, Burns said.
Still, government studies show the turbines reduce carbon emissions. And issues with variability may be resolved once wind-generated electricity can be stored in large quantities, wind advocates say.
Under a voluntary program in Virginia, utilities are encouraged to obtain at least 15 percent of their 2007 sales from renewables – including solar, wind and hydropower – by 2025. The current goal is 4 percent, which Appalachian meets by buying power from wind farms in Illinois and Indiana.
While wind may never replace coal and natural gas, advocates say it’s still worthwhile to tap a resource that is free and will last forever.
“Even if it’s variable, you’re producing energy out of thin air,” said Erik Duncan, development manager for Invenergy’s Beech Ridge project. “So I don’t know how it gets better than that.”
‘Kind of a swoosh’
If there is a ground zero for wind farm opponents in Greenbrier County, it would be Duo.
The community, about 3,600 feet from the wind farm’s western edge, is the closest to the turbines.
From his front porch, Steve Lilly conducted a quick census, rattling off names of all six or so households in a community that gets its name from the fact that two families – the Williamses and the Whites – first settled here.
Most people in Duo are opposed to the turbines, or view them with guarded ambivalence.
But even in this tiny sample of the county, there is a difference of opinion.
Cordell Deline, a 74-year-old traveling evangelist, lives in the closest home to the turbines, a rambling, 29-room former boarding house for coal miners.
Deline likes the windmills so much she’s thinking about cutting down some trees to enhance the view.
Sometimes, she opens her bedroom window to hear them better.
“To tell you the truth, at night, I like to listen to it,” Deline said. “It’s kind of a swoosh, but it’s pleasant. It doesn’t bother me in the least.”
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