CENTRE – A wind energy project is moving forward in Cherokee County, where a Texas-based company plans to build wind turbines atop a scenic mountain ridge in 2014.
The project developer, Pioneer Green, a renewable energy company, plans to install eight wind turbines on private property near Centre along the Shinbone Ridge beginning next year. The 120- to 160-foot blades, which will be mounted atop posts between 250 and 350 feet tall, are expected to generate enough power to light half the homes in Cherokee County, according to a company press release, but nearby residents are trying to decide if the development is a good fit for communities nearby.
“I’m not sure I want my county to be the guinea pig,” said Marcie Foster, a Cherokee County commissioner.
State Sen. Phil Williams, R-Rainbow City, plans to prefile a bill Friday that, if passed, would give local governments more control over wind energy project developments in Alabama.
The windmills are being developed on private land, but the project will need approval from the Alabama Department of Transportation because of the need to transport heavy loads up the mountain as the turbines are being built.
The bill would give local county commissions and city councils the opportunity to approve or deny wind energy projects in their communities. It would also require financing mechanisms to ensure the turbines are property removed if the projects fail, Williams said.
“There is absolutely no regulatory body, a set of rules or expectations on wind energy anywhere in the state of Alabama,” he said. “It’s important to me that my constituents have protective measures in place before the first tower ever has a chance to be erected.”
If the project moves forward as planned, it will be the first of its kind in Alabama, according to Pioneer Green. The company plans to extend wind turbine development into Etowah County, where there are plans to install as many as 40 turbines, but the Cherokee County project will develop first, said Patrick Buckley, the company’s development manager. Pioneer Green secured land-lease agreements with private property owners who will give the company space to build the towers in exchange for a 30-year financial agreement after plans to develop one on a popular outcropping of rocks on the ridge sparked a public outcry.
Pioneer Green says that the wind turbines will help produce renewable energy, increase tax revenue, create jobs, stimulate economic activity and spur tourism. Citing a study by Jacksonville State University, the company’s website states the projects will contribute more than $1 million each year in county tax revenues in Cherokee and Etowah counties for 30 years.
Most of the windmills will be in Etowah County, but Cherokee County stands to gain about $300,000 each year in ad valorem taxes for 30 years,said Cherokee County Probate Judge Kirk Day, who also chairs the county’s commission. A little over half of that money would go to Cherokee County public schools, while the rest would be divided between the county’s general fund and its highway department, Day said.
Buckley said Pioneer Green is going through an extensive permitting process through the Tennessee Valley Authority, which is the federally-backed energy giant it plans to sell to. That permitting process will include a study of the environmental impact and is conducted through the TVA in accordance with a federal standards, Buckley said.
Attempts to reach TVA representatives were unsuccessful Wednesday.
The renewable energy company began developing the wind turbine projects in Alabama in response to a request for renewable energy sources from TVA. They came to an agreement on the matter in 2012, but Pioneer Green president Andy Bowman had his eye on the site long before that, Buckley said.
Bowman first identified the site as a potential spot for wind energy development about 10 years ago, Buckley said.
He added that the company, which was created four years ago, has four years of data that prove there is enough wind above the ridge to make energy with turbines.
“This is an area where Pioneer Green has keenly focused on,” said Buckley said.
The economic promise and opportunity for green energy development associated with the project is enough incentive for some to support the project.
While some, like Foster, have reservations about the development, other people who live and work within eyeshot of the ridge feel like it’s an opportunity to be a part of something good. When they picture the wind turbines rising above the treetops, they’re unbothered.
“I would much rather see something like that than what we have to look at when we go to Rome,” said Centre business owner Anissa Lemons, referring to an energy plant there. “I think not recycling on any fossil fuels is a good thing.”
Others still have questions about whether it’s worth the possible long-term effects to the environment and the potential impact on developing eco-tourism there.
“You don’t want to stifle innovation and economic opportunity, but you have to balance that out with responsibility and stewardship of the environment,” Day said.