LEESBURG – Since word of the prospect of a first-in-Alabama wind turbine project along the edge of Lookout Mountain became public last fall, Leesburg Mayor Ed Mackey has been the face of the opposition.
And the voice.
Last month Mackey spoke against the Shinbone Wind Energy Project during a County Commission meeting, aguing that there were “too many red flags” for the proposed 8-10 turbines to be built adjacent to Cherokee Rock Village, a natural rock formation near Leesburg that is being developed as a tourist attraction. as part of a separate project, an additional 45 turbines are proposed along the ridge extending southwest into Etowah County.
“I, for one, would like to keep the mountain just as it is,” Mackey said last month. He also urged the commissioners to deny project developer Pioneer Green energy any rights-of-way to county property.
Last week Mackey remained every bit as adamant that his town’s pine tree-covered mountain backdrop is no place for green energy. He said the initial plan agreed to by Pioneer Green and the county’s Parks and Recreation Board – which would have included a turbine inside park property as a tourism draw – was their first mistake.
“I think because of us raising a ruckus about that, it got that turbine out of the park,” Mackery said. “That’s plumb out of the issue right now. But the Park Board did buy that road.”
“That road” is a six-mile dirt trail near Cherokee Rock Village. Mackey said the initial secrecy between Pioneer Green and the Park Board make him suspicious about the long-term plans for the roadway.
“What I’m thinking is they want to use that road to get the wind turbine up there,” Mackey said.
New Park Board member David Crum last week said the property was originally purchased for use as an equestrian trail. He said he does not expect the road bed to be used for hauling wind turbines up the side of the mountain.
“That will be a back-country trail for walking and bicycles to travel to a primitive campground at the bottom of the mountain,” Crum said. “I think, overall, purchasing that property was a very wise, long-term expansion of the park.”
In an attempt to reach out to the community, Pioneer Green officials hosted an open house April 13 during the Chamber of Commerce’s annual home and garden show. Mackey said he attended but was not impressed.
“I did go, and from what I’m thinking, it was propaganda,” Mackey said. “They were all paid Pioneer Green employees. It was basically for somebody who had never heard of wind energy. And it was all the same things we had already been told.”
Mackey said he still hasn’t been given any satisfactory answers to explain how electricity generated along Shinbone Ridge would be safely conducted to nearby high-capacity power lines owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority. TVA has already agreed to purchase the power if the project is completed.
Multiple calls placed to Chuck Hutchinson, the TVA project manager in charge of the environmental assessment of the Shinbone project, were not returned by press time. A TVA impact study of the project has been underway for months.
Mackey said he understands that property rights are sacrosanct to most Alabamians. Still, he’s holding out hope for some assistance from Montgomery when it comes to stopping the Shinbone project – though he admitted he isn’t impressed with what he has seen so far.
“[State Senator] Phil Williams is trying to introduce a bill that’s not worth fifteen cents,” Mackey said. “His bill says windmills can’t be closer [to existing homes] than seven hundred and fifty feet, but Pioneer Green has already told us they are going to give us two thousand feet.”
Williams has a seven-page draft bill he hopes to finalize as soon as possible. On Friday, Williams urged withholding judgment until a final wind energy bill emerges from the State House.
“The bill is already being revised, slightly, but it is my intent to introduce the bill and hopefully pass it this session,” Williams said.
The last day of the 2013 legislative session is May 20.
Williams said he is not opposed to green projects, but believes wind energy is “over subsidized.” He also said he is “skeptical” of the Shinbone Ridge project and is watching developments closely because all of the proposed construction would take place in his district.
“If it does happen, it needs to happen the right way,” he said.
Cherokee Electric CEO Randall Wilkie said he has already spoken with TVA officials and expressed his fears about how installing additional high-voltage lines to the county’s electrical grid could affect local substations.
“There could be some fairly significant negative impacts regarding power delivery to Cherokee Electric on those TVA lines,” Wilkie said. “I have some concerns that the wind turbines would cause degradation to the power quality for Sand Rock, Leesburg and Centre.”
Despite all the uncertainties Mackey conceded that if TVA grants its approval – and short of some as-yet unidentified process for declaring a countywide moratorium to “sort through some of this stuff” – there is little anyone can do to prevent Pioneer Green from constructing wind turbines on private property on which they have permission to build.
“It’s just like if someone came in next door to you and built a hog farm,” Mackey said. “There’s nothing you can do about it. But it doesn’t mean you have to like it. We’ve got to do all we can do to get this stopped, but we can only do so much.”