GADSDEN, Alabama – More than 100 people came to an “open house” this morning at the Etowah County Courthouse to hear a Texas-based company talk about its planned windmill farm projects in two counties.
Pioneer Green Energy is planning on building up to 40 wind mill turbines along a ridge in northern Etowah County. Construction could begin later this year, if the project goes forward.
The company also plans on building eight turbines in neighboring Cherokee County. The turbines would be between 267 to 330 feet tall, have three blades and be spread about 1/4 to 1/5th of a mile apart. The Etowah County Commission this week said it was taking no position for or against the project.
Milling through the crowd were the curious, some taking souvenir pens and tote bags. There were landowners present who are part of the project, talking up the benefits of the farms. There were also those in opposition, some with binders or newspaper clippings, wanting answers to specific questions about the projects’ potential impact.
One of those talking with visitors was Andy Bowman, president of Pioneer Green.
“We didn’t know what to expect, but there’s been a lot of interest,” Bowman said. “We’re really happy to have the opportunity to tell our story, and people are taking advantage of it.”
Bowman said the company is still in the development stage of the project, still lining up permits, but that construction remains on target for later this year.
The room was laid out with displays on tables, aimed at answering each of the concerns that have been voiced by residents at various public meetings. One table had information on environmental and wildlife impact, while others dealt with economic benefits, construction and federal energy policy. There was a photo illustration showing what the ridge slated for construction will look like with the addition of turbines.
There was also a spread of doughnuts and pastries for the hungry. After the event ended in Gadsden, the company planned another for later today in Centre.
One of those speaking to the visitors was someone who has already been through this process. John Knab, a town supervisor in Sheldon, N.Y., was one of those recruited to come and talk about the project’s potential benefits. Sheldon has 75 turbines, and the county reaps about $3.9 million in revenue from the project each year, Knab said.
But opposition to the project was vocal and sustained. Town meetings went from having two or three spectators to having more than 200. The project survived five lawsuit challenges, he said. Since its completion, Kneb has been reelected by a two-to-one majority.
“People opposed to it made a lot of noise,” he said. “Most of the people who were opposed to it did so out of greed or jealousy. Now most of them are for it.”
State Sen. Phil Williams (R-Rainbow City) was also at the meeting. He said he plans on introducing a bill in the current legislative session which would address some of the concerns of those who oppose the project.
“I believe we can get it through this session,” Williams said. “This is an issue that has statewide importance.”
Williams said he is still skeptical that wind energy is viable in Alabama, but believes the issue should be addressed legislatively because there are other wind projects now being projected for the state, such as in Baldwin County.
“Nationwide, the success stories are about equal to the failures,” he said. “There are a lot of questions that still haven’t been fully answered. I’m all for an all-of-the-above energy policy, but I don’t think we can not address the concerns my constituents have.”
Williams’ draft bill would require wind farm developers to get a permit from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. It would also establish height requirements, setbacks, and mandate that noise from turbines not exceed 50 decibels.
It would also require any turbine which stays inactive for more than one year to be removed by the system’s operator. Williams said his bill was modeled on similar legislation from New York.
Outside the courthouse, opponents of the project handed out literature and stood with placards pointing to what they say are the project’s potential hazards – the impact on wildlife, the noise from the turbines, and the wind industry’s reliance on government subsidies.
“We have our group outside, and we have a group inside asking questions,” said Leslie Lipscomb, who stood outside handing out fliers against the project. She wore a red ribbon with the words “No Wind Farm” written on it. About 30 people opposing the project came, and plan to make the trip to Centre for the later open house.
“We’re real pleased with the turnout,” Lipscomb said.
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