The slower, intermittent winds were the barrier to developing wind farms in the Southeast.
Now it may be heavy regulation and lawsuits.
Industry and federal government officials say advances in turbine technology could transform wind development in the Southeast, adding another renewable fuel option to an area once dominated by coal. But as outside developers are eyeing places to build taller towers and longer blades, emerging lawsuits and legislation could drive them away.
Some state and local governments as well as residents say the regulations are necessary. They are concerned about developers ruining their environment and abandoning rows of turbines if a project fails.
In Alabama, a Senate energy panel reviewed a measure to regulate turbines yesterday, moving the bill forward favorably late in the afternoon with a 5-1 vote. Wind projects are proposed for eight counties, said bill sponsor state Sen. Phil Williams (R) of Rainbow City.
Williams’ district covers Etowah and Cherokee counties in northeast Alabama, where Texas-based Pioneer Green Energy wants to build two wind projects. The first, an eight-turbine project called the Shinbone Wind Energy Center, would deliver wind to the Tennessee Valley Authority and the power companies it serves.
The second, the 40-turbine Noccalula Wind Energy Center, currently does not have a buyer for the electricity it will produce. Patrick Buckley, development manager for Pioneer Green Energy, said the company is pursuing all of its options at this point.
Lawsuits have slowed both projects, and Williams’ bill (S.B. 12) would prohibit any wind development, Buckley said. The bill sets engineering, environmental and financial standards for wind turbines and would require the Alabama Public Service Commission to permit and oversee development.
“There is absolutely no regulatory authority in Alabama regarding wind,” Williams said. “We aren’t saying you can’t come here, but if you’re going to come here, our citizens have to be protected.”
Buckley said if the bill becomes law, it could have a chilling effect across the Southeast. Other wind developers are looking at the market with interest, in part because of advanced technology that makes wind development more viable in the region, Buckley said.
Utilities also are starting to consider wind as part of their electricity mix, he said. Several utilities in the Southeast have signed long-term contracts to buy wind from other states because costs have fallen.
“The industry as a whole would lose. It sets a precedent that’s pretty negative for other states in the region,” Buckley said. “I think a lot of different companies have a keen eye on this bill because of the effect it could have in neighboring states.”
Williams said he has widespread support that includes the governor.
“As a conservative Republican, I am typically for less regulation, but I also recognize that the absence of regulation can create anarchy,” Williams said.
Besides Pioneer Green, another energy company, one with some muscle, is reviewing the bill.
NextEra Energy Resources, the large renewable energy unit of Florida-based NextEra Energy, has hired a lobbyist, according to the Alabama Ethics Commission’s website. NextEra also gave $2,000 to Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard on Jan. 13, according to campaign finance disclosures with the secretary of state’s office.
NextEra operates more than 100 wind farms in the United States and Canada but currently does not have wind assets in the Southeast.
Wind developers broke ground on more than 11,000 megawatts of new turbines during the last three months of 2013, according to information from the American Wind Energy Association, the industry’s trade group. States leading that development continue to be Texas and the Midwest, where consistent, high-speed winds have fostered a robust wind industry. States in the East and West emerged as areas for new growth.
In the Southeast, there are pockets of adequate resources – wind speeds and other geography – for turbines, according to a spokesman for the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Specific turbine models are being developed and tailored to match high or low wind speeds, said David Glickson, NREL spokesman. Bigger blades are another option to get more potential energy out of the wind, he said.
“This needs to be balanced with the additional costs involved with doing so,” Glickson said.
Currently, the Buffalo Mountain Wind Farm in TVA’s territory is the only large-scale wind farm operating in the Southeast. TVA owns three of the turbines, but they are no longer running. The federal utility buys wind power from the other 15 turbines, owned by Chicago-based Invenergy Wind.
Outside of that, the other wind power in the Southeast is coming from power purchase agreements. Alabama Power, Georgia Power, TVA and the Southwestern Electric Power Co. have signed long-term contracts to buy power from wind farms in other states.
Buckley said Pioneer Green’s president eyed northeast Alabama for a wind project 12 years ago as president of another renewable energy company. Pioneer restarted the project once TVA said it would buy the power as part of a renewable energy program. The projects have secured land and environmental permits as well as one from the Federal Aviation Administration, needed because of the towers’ height.
Other wind developers are considering projects in northeast and southeast Alabama, Buckley said.
“We think there’s some big potential to bring megawatts onto the grid, and utilities are showing appetite for it,” he said.
DOE this week also announced $2 million in financing to develop taller wind turbines, which could be another boost for wind energy development in the region.
Opponents of the Shinbone and Noccalula projects have sued Pioneer Green and the owners of the land where the turbines are to be placed. Their concerns include the project’s impact on the scenic beauty, noise from the spinning turbines and its impact on the environment. Additional concerns include falling land value and danger from broken blades or falling turbines.
Lisa Linowes, executive director of the Industrial Wind Action Group, said she contacted the residents after learning of the projects. Besides the environmental and health concerns, Linowes argues that wind projects are too costly because they are heavily subsidized and operate most effectively at night, when electricity is at its lowest consumption.
Building natural gas plants is better way to get cleaner energy than building wind turbines, she argues.
“There are cheaper, more immediate options without jumping into the high cost of wind,” she said.
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