The winds of change are blowing across Alabama as renewable energy projects are proposed in Cherokee, Etowah and Baldwin counties. St. Clair and Cleburne counties also may have wind companies potentially interested in establishing wind farms there.
Companies who want to build the new wind turbines tout the clean, environmentally friendly nature of their projects. Opponents see the destruction of pristine areas from projects that they say may return little benefit. However, federal incentives are making wind more profitable, even in the stiflingly still summer air.
Traditionally, wind projects in the Southeast have been considered undesirable due to the lack of moving air, with tornadoes and hurricanes being the dangerous exception. A map of wind projects across the U.S. shows complete blanks across the South, with one exception in Tennessee.
“We go to Kansas and the Great Plains to buy wind power, which is 3 percent of our total energy usage for our customers,” says Michael Sznajderman, a spokesman for Alabama Power. He pointed out that the only good place in their service area for wind is atop their corporate office, which could cause issues with the Birmingham airport.
With climate change a priority of the Obama administration, wind projects have gained favor for their low carbon footprints. Wind projects ask little of the earth – they use virtually no water, as do other forms of energy, such as fossil fuels, nuclear and hydrologic plants. Emissions are virtually nil.
To encourage more wind power, in January 2013 revised federal legislation extended incentives through this year. Projects started by Dec. 31, 2013 can be eligible for as much as 30 percent of the cost through a corporate tax credit of 2.3 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to the U.S. Department of Energy website. (This paragraph was corrected on 9/23/13 and updates an earlier version.)
Opponents argue that the incentives are spurring risky projects that otherwise would not be considered.
“At first, I thought this was a no-brainer renewable energy project. But this is corporate welfare as far as I am concerned. It is about subsidies, not renewable energy,” says Shannon Mackey, a furniture maker in Leesburg who is leading the charge to oppose the north Alabama projects.
A no voter on the proposed wind farm near Foley, Baldwin County Commissioner Skip Gruber added, “Anytime the government starts giving things away, people come in to make a buck. It is a waste of taxpayer money.”
Meanwhile, the Dec. 31 deadline is forcing the wind company to put projects on the fast track to gain approvals. Pioneer Green Energy has been working for four years to complete all of the studies and paperwork to start building the Shinbone Ridge (Cherokee County) and Noccalula (Etowah County) Wind Energy Projects.
“We hope to start construction on Shinbone in early fall,” says Patrick Buckley, development manager for Texas-based Pioneer Green Energy.
Pioneer Green has proposed two potential wind farms. They stretch across a ridge atop Lookout Mountain and straddle Etowah and Cherokee Counties. Nearby are Weiss Lake, Noccalula Falls, Little River Canyon and historic Cherokee Rock Village, a “rock-climbing mecca,” according to Mackey.
The lure of green energy and the preservation of a beloved mountain have sparked intense soul searching among environmentalists. Add in the fact that wind farms have been known to kill birds, especially bald eagles and bats, and the environmentalists are tilting against the project. As many as 573,000 birds are killed a year by wind turbines, according to the Wildlife Society Bulletin.
“Our bald eagles are just now coming back, and we are fortunate to have them,” says Gruber.
In California, golden eagle mortality has been devastating, according to Buckley, who explains that those turbines were poorly sited. Pioneer Green has conducted bird studies proving the turbines would be safe for raptors and other birds that are not likely to forage on the ridge, he says. Eagles have been sighted in the area, and an estimated 70 pairs nest around nearby Lake Guntersville State Park, which hosts annual Eagle Awareness weekends.
While energy companies claim hiking, farming and ranching can continue under the turbines, they require a big footprint, deep into the rocks of Shinbone and wide areas of concrete. On a mountain ridge, blasting could tumble down perched boulders, according to Mitzi Jane Eaker, whose family owns a farm below the project.
“I am for renewable energy, but if we are going to sacrifice our mountain, are we going to get some major energy production out of it?” Eaker asked. Eaker is the social media director of NoWindAlabama website.
Between 30 and 40 turbines are proposed for Etowah and eight for Cherokee, according to Buckley. In a Federal Aviation Administration application for the wind farm, a total of 60 turbines have been requested for approval, according to the FAA website.
The project would provide 18 megawatts of energy in Cherokee and about 80 megawatts in Etowah County. The Cherokee project would supply enough energy for 6,000 homes a year, and Etowah’s 30 turbines would serve 24,000 homes, according to Buckley.
While Pioneer Green has not procured the turbines and heights are yet to be determined, the FAA application asks permission to build 570-foot tall turbines – nearly twice as high as a football field. These massive structures would sit on ridges as tall as 1,553 feet, for a total height of 2,123 feet. If approved, these could be among the tallest turbines in the U.S. The Wind Industry website lists 525 feet as the tall end of the turbine scale.
“There is not a single turbine in the country that tall. Having to go that tall tells you the wind resources are not very good,” says Lisa Linowes, executive director of the Industrial Wind Action Group.
The Shinbone project would be visible to the entire Cherokee County, according to Ecker. Etowah County will have a good view as well.
Although Pioneer Green has not built an operating wind farm to date, it does have shovel ready projects due to start this year, according to Buckley. The company founders also share many years of experience in the wind industry.
The TVA operates a wind farm on Buffalo Mountain (elevation 2,746 feet above sea level) near Oak Ridge, Tenn., where 15 modern turbines added to a test site in 2004 created the first commercial scale wind farm in the Southeast – with a capacity of 29 megawatts, “or enough to power about 3,780 homes,” according to the TVA.
Pioneer Green officials say their project is based on a solid four years of wind data on Shinbone Ridge. But opponents question even these basic numbers. The data does not match National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration numbers, says Phil Williams, a state senator from Rainbow City, who says he’ll introduce a local bill to grant Cherokee County officials power to pass local ordinances prohibiting such projects. Lack of home rule under the Alabama Constitution requires local governments to take such measures.
Meanwhile, opponents in Cherokee and Etowah counties joined as plaintiffs in a suit filed in August in state circuit court seeking to block Pioneer Green’s two projects.
Opposition to wind farm development in Baldwin County is aimed at a project proposed by Charlottesville, Va.-based APEX Wind Energy, which is proposing 40 turbines from 520 to 590 feet tall, according to Gruber.
“I am not sold on them. The industry has come around promising people they will make all kinds of money, and it just isn’t happening. We have talked with other states and we are seeing what they went through – they wish they had never installed it,” says Gruber.
A step ahead of opponents in north Alabama, Baldwin County leaders got the Legislature to pass a local bill in the last session that gave the Baldwin County Commission power to pass an ordinance prohibiting wind farms, which it did on August 6.
Pioneer Green officials estimate the Noccalula project at $160 million and Shinbone at $35 to $40 million. An economic benefit study they commissioned shows the project will generate a $54 million impact. The study speculated on potential impact using wind industry data, according to Jeff Hooie, the research analyst at Jacksonville State University Center for Economic Development, who worked on the study.
Opponents point out that the study assumed local companies and labor would build the project. However, the land in Cherokee that will be leased is owned by the Cash family, who own Cash Construction, Asphalt and Concrete in Rome, Ga. and Texas – so opponents believe the construction monies will travel out of state.
“They are carpet baggers coming in to steal what they can from us. They will leave with their profits and leave the bill to us,” says Mackey.
The study also predicts $709,000 per year in taxes for Etowah County. Rental incomes on the ridge will fetch $7,000 a year for the landowners, according to Hooie. Much of the income from the turbines for landowners is based on a 30 percent production rate; the Tennessee wind farm rarely exceeds 24 percent, according to Williams.
Local real estate broker Jason Stinson believes the decreased property values will more than outweigh any new taxes from the Shinbone and Noccalula projects.
“Tens of millions of dollars in lost property values, plus migration out of the area, could cause loss of revenue,” says Stinson, founder, principal and managing member of Commercial Realty Services of Alabama LLC.
People will move away from the throbbing sound of the turbines, according to Linowes, who describes a low throb that can be heard for miles. The noise is the equivalent to a refrigerator sound at 1,250 feet, Buckley asserts.
While opponents wail about the possibility of the wind farms, local politicians see little that can be done to stop the progress of the north Alabama projects. With no state regulation on the industry and few private property restrictions, the county officials can do little to keep local landowners from leasing their property to Pioneer Green. Williams introduced a bill to regulate the wind industry in the last legislative session, but the bill never made it through. It is prefiled for the next session, giving the Alabama Department of Environmental Management governing responsibility. His bill also requires financial backing for the life of the project, including decommissioning.
“My bill first and foremost tries to protect Alabama citizens who have absolutely no regulatory body overseeing these wind farms. There is nothing governing the installation and maintenance of these turbines.”
All too often, wind farms that don’t produce get abandoned, leaving an enormous and visible structure to rust, according to Williams.
“If they don’t pan out, it can cost millions to remove the turbines, if they get removed,” says Williams.
With permission to regulate wind blessed by the Legislature, the story of wind energy projects in Baldwin County takes a different path. At the time of this writing, the Baldwin County Commissioners have called a halt to the proposal to build wind turbines. Commissioners, ever sensitive to the needs of tourism, one of their biggest sources of revenue, have determined that the tall towers would be ugly additions to the landscape.
“You can see them all over the county and they are unsightly and a nuisance,” says Gruber.
That power is not shared with Lookout Mountain counties. The 1901 Alabama Constitution centralizes local power in the iron grip of the Legislature, making it difficult for local leaders to decide the fate of their communities. Etowah and Cherokee counties may have to take their complaints about the projects to the mercurial body that is the Alabama House and Senate, and then to an even more unpredictable group, Alabama voters, at an upcoming election. If no action comes from state and local government, then a handful of wind developers and private landowners will decide the fate of Lookout Mountain.
Verna Gates is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.
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