HEFLIN – An Oklahoma-based developer has been studying Turkey Heaven Mountain in Cleburne County as a potential site for a wind farm since early 2011.
Nations Energy Solutions is one of several wind energy companies exploring the state, and pending legislation to regulate them has set off a debate about just how much regulation is necessary.
Nations Energy CEO Sean Roberts said his company has tried to keep its presence in the county quiet because competition in the industry is heavy. Although studies are still ongoing, the company’s presence was outed Monday when resident Carolyn Doggett brought her concerns about the farm to a meeting of the Cleburne County Commission.
Doggett said she knew the legislation was making its way through the state Legislature. But then she found that Cleburne County had been exempted from the bill, Senate Bill 12, before it passed the Senate on Feb. 27.
Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, said he felt the bill would endanger a huge economic boost for the county, so he asked for the exemption. The process of bringing the wind farm to the county has been ongoing for years, Dial said.
“It would’ve simply stopped the process,” Dial said.
The bill delegates the responsibility of reviewing applications and plans for the turbine farms to the Public Service Commission, which would have to come up with rules to comply with the new law, Dial said.
In addition to requirements for permit applications with the Public Service Commission and public notice, the bill stipulates that companies should install fencing, signs and other safety features at turbines. The exemption for Cleburne County would mean the state would not require those measures for turbines there. Dial said the issue isn’t safety, but opportunity. He said he’d already heard from officials in Heflin and the county and they were in favor of exemption.
Nations Energy Solutions has been lobbying against the bill, Roberts said.
“We felt that it would be a duplicate of what we’re already doing,” Roberts said.
The company must apply for permits from the Federal Aviation Administration to prevent interference with air travel or communications, said Robin Saiz, a developer for the company. It works with the Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on environmental impacts, including wind farms’ potential effect on birds, bats and plants, he said. The company will have to work with the Alabama Department of Transportation on road requirements and road-use agreements, Saiz said.
The purpose of doing all the studies beforehand is to avoid any potential issues, he said.
It’s easier to find a new site for the tower than to build where issues exist.
As an example, he said that “the coast is a great wind zone but we would never go there because it wouldn’t make sense.”
Migratory birds on the coast are protected by federal law, he said. One reason Turkey Heaven Mountain, in a sparsely populated area between Heflin and Ranburne, is attractive to the company is because there are no endangered species in the area, he said. It’s also not in a migration path and there are no lakes to attract the birds, he said.
Wind industry growing
The wind-power industry began in California in about 1975. It started spreading throughout the country in the mid-1990s. As of July 2013, there were no industrial-scale wind turbine sites in Alabama and only a very few in the Southeast in Tennessee, West Virginia and Kentucky, according to a map of wind farms from the U.S. Geological Survey.
The industry has been growing rapidly. According to the website of the American Wind Energy Association, at the end of 2012, wind energy production surpassed 60 gigawatts, enough to power more than 15 million homes.
In Alabama, several counties besides Cleburne are seeing interest from companies looking for new sites for wind farms, said Sen. Phil Williams, R-Rainbow City, who sponsored the legislation to regulate wind farms.
He became aware about 18 months ago that a company was looking at Shinbone Ridge in his district as a possible site for a wind farm.
“I began to hear quite an outcry from constituents,” Williams said.
He started investigating and found that there were no state laws regulating the industry. He looked for model legislation and found it in a local ordinance from Sheldon, N.Y., Williams said.
But as the bill has made its way through Montgomery, it has been substituted twice and amended, Williams said. It is now a unique piece of legislation that has had input from a number of constituencies and agencies including the League of Municipalities, the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, the governor’s office, every utility provider in the state and three wind energy companies, he said. He believes the legislation could be a model for other states.
But not everyone feels that way.
The Alabama Sierra Club is happy to see renewable energy expanding into the state, but agrees that some regulation is needed, said Robert Hastings, chairman of the Alabama chapter.
“So that it has the least impact on residents and wildlife,” Hastings said.
However, the club feels the bill goes too far and will discourage companies from building in the state, he said.
Tanya Maloney, executive director of the Cleburne County Chamber of Commerce, was one of the constituents who wrote Dial requesting the county be exempted from the legislation.
“We’re keeping our opportunities on the table,” Maloney said.
She said the companies must comply with federal regulations to build the turbines. When siting the farms, the federal government has a lot of input, the developers said.
However, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates much of the energy industry, notes on its website that maintenance and safety of the electric projects are the jurisdiction of state public utility commissions.
Not every state has regulations. In Texas, where utilities are competitive, there is no state regulation of the installation of wind turbines, said Terry Hadley, spokesman for the state’s Public Utility Commission.
Wind energy is becoming a big business in Texas, Hadley said.
On Tuesday, the state’s wind energy resources generated 9,689 megawatts of power, which Hadley said was a new record.
To put that in perspective, Roberts, of Nations Energy Solutions, said the company is exploring placing up to 30 turbines on Turkey Heaven Mountain. That could generate up to 90 megawatts of power, enough to power about 600 homes, Saiz said.
Roberts said he believes any regulation should come from the local level – not the state level. And for small counties such as Cleburne which may not have much experience with the projects, the industry will help them.
Wind-energy producers have learned a lot over the past decades, he said. His company strives to be safe, provide a quality product on budget and on schedule and to be an asset to the community, he said.
“No one’s going to invest $200 million when you’ve designed a bad foundation,” Roberts said. “No one wants a liability.”