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Wind farm bill advances in Alabama Senate

MONTGOMERY – Ginny Shaver brought pictures, so the people in Montgomery could see Cherokee County the way she sees it.

A grainy shot of a bald eagle that landed by a lake on her property. The view from the top of Shinbone Ridge – that wall of mountain that looms at your left shoulder when you drive from Gadsden to Leesburg.

“This is where they’re going to put the windmills,” Shaver said of the ridge. “It’s beautiful. People have their weddings up there.”

Shaver was one of more than 100 people who packed a committee room in the Alabama Statehouse Wednesday for a state Senate committee hearing on a bill to regulate wind farms.

Sen. Phil Williams, R-Gadsden, proposed the bill after a Texas-based company, Pioneer Green, announced plans to build a series of electricity-producing wind turbines – all on private property – along Shinbone Ridge in Etowah and Cherokee counties as early as this year.

Advocates for the project said it would generate jobs and tax revenue for Cherokee County, without the smokestacks and pollutants normally associated with power plants, but the proposal has divided local landowners.

“These wind towers are not the farm windmill you see in ‘The Wizard of Oz’,” Williams said. The proposed Shinbone windmills would stand 250 to 350 feet tall with blades anywhere from 120 to 160 feet wide – big enough, Williams said, for a Boeing 747 to fit within the sweep of the blades.

Under Williams’ bill, wind farm projects would need approval by the state’s Public Service Commission and the local government. Turbine-building companies would have to create a plan to have the windmills dismantled if the project went belly-up. Furthermore, windmills would have to be set 2,500 feet back from the property line and would be allowed to generate no more than 40 decibels of noise at the property line.

The bill has earned Williams strong support from windmill opponents, who say the Shinbone Ridge project would ruin the beauty of the area, which is dependent on tourism at Weiss Lake. Still, the bill wouldn’t ban the turbines outright.

Williams said there were already regulations in place for anyone who planned to build houses, hospitals or non-wind power plants.

“There’s zero in place for wind,” he said.

Etowah County resident Steve Shaneyfelt said Pioneer Green is considering his property as a possible windmill site. Shaneyfelt said he doesn’t have a problem with regulating windmills.

“I am opposed to this regulation if it’s a moratorium on wind farms,” he said. Shaneyfelt said the 2,500-foot limit was stricter than the buffer zones required for mines or pig farms.

“It means I’d have to own a square mile of property,” he said. “Is there anyone in this room who owns 640 acres?”

Shaneyfelt also took exception to the bill’s noise restriction. He said no one has put noise restrictions on a gun range that is about a mile from his property.

“Every day we listen to the rat-tat-tat of machine guns and rifles,” he said. “I’m not opposed to that. It’s not my property.”

Matt McDonald, a lobbyist for the energy company NextEra, displayed a decibel meter at the podium while addressing the senators. He, too, said the 40-decibel limit lower than the sound he’d recorded in the committee room before the meeting.

“When no one is speaking, decibel level is 57,” he said in a calm voice. “With me hollering and screaming as I am now, it’s 72.”

McDonald said NextEra generates electricity through multiple sources, but largely uses windmills. He was the only person at the meeting who made significant mention of wind power as a low-pollution source of fuel. He said projects like Shinbone Ridge could create jobs and tax revenue for rural counties.

Shaver, the Cherokee County resident, said those jobs would be mostly construction jobs, and would largely vanish when construction ends.

“Unless you own a concrete construction company, there aren’t going to be a lot of jobs for the locals,” she said.

The Senate committee voted 5-1 in favor of Williams’ bill, which sends it on to the Senate for further consideration. Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, voted for the bill, but he said before the vote that there may be “room for change” when the bill hits the full Senate.

The sole “no” vote came from Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro.

“The industry needs some regulation,” he said. “But in terms of the setbacks, I’m not so sure. We have to look at people’s property rights.”