Last month, a 5-year-old stood in front of a legislative committee and told them a heartwarming story about how she and her late father used to go hiking together on Shinbone Ridge in northeastern Alabama.
She told the story to demonstrate her opposition to a wind turbine farm planned on private property near the park where she used to hike.
A bill going through the Alabama Legislature that would regulate wind power might put an end to two wind turbine projects that have been in the works in Etowah and Cherokee counties for more than three years.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Phil Williams, R-Rainbow City, would require the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC) to regulate the location, design, installation and operation of wind conversion systems in the state.
There are also two local bills that have been passed by both chambers of the state Legislature that Williams described as “backstop” bills to stop the projects in case the state bill doesn’t pass.
Supporters of the wind-power projects say the local bills, two of the most restrictive to wind energy development in the country, and the state bill might deter companies from investing in clean energy projects altogether in Alabama.
$2M already invested
Both projects, which would be located on private property near Shinbone Ridge, are being done by the Texas-based Pioneer Green Energy. The company has solar and wind projects in several states across the country.
Patrick Buckley, development manager of Pioneer Green Energy, said the Cherokee County project would involve seven to eight wind turbines that would cost about $40 million to $50 million, and the Etowah County Project would be 35 to 50 turbines that would cost about $160 million.
Pioneer Green has a power purchase agreement with the Tennessee Valley Authority for the Cherokee County Project conditional on approval of numerous studies required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that have been conducted over the past three years. In Etowah County, the company is still discussing a power contract, he said.
Both projects already have lease agreements in place with landowners, and the company already has invested about $2 million in the clean energy projects so far, he said.
The company has four years of wind data in the two counties that shows there’s enough wind to support the utility projects. They’ve also conducted years of environmental, architectural, shadow flicker, historical, archaeological and cultural studies that would satisfy local concerns as well as existing state and federal regulations laws.
The Etowah County project would bring about $700,000 to $1.14 million in tax revenue every year for about 30 years, 45 to 72 permanent jobs and 430 to 700 jobs during the six-month construction period. The Cherokee County project would bring about $200,000 to $300,000 in annual tax revenue, 18 permanent jobs and about $734,000 to $2.2 million tourism-related revenue, Buckley said.
He also said the company isn’t getting any tax incentives from local or state government for the projects.
Buckley said the company has worked with both communities throughout the processes. In Cherokee County, Pioneer Green has partnered with the local school board for a program that would provide scholarships to students and has made a commitment to invest in a wind turbine that students in career tech programs can use as part of their classes.
“There are some good things in this bill, but it’s a straight shot at our projects,” Buckley said. “We feel like we’re not getting a fair shake.”
Buckley said he worked with Williams to try to come to a compromise with changes or a grandfather clause that would allow the projects to move forward, but it didn’t happen.
“The bills are geared to kill our projects and we feel pretty strongly about that,” he said. “We’ve been working on three projects for three to four years. When we began development on these projects, the laws of Alabama were as they are now.”
The bill would give the Public Service Commission the power to grant permits for wind conversion systems, but the specific guidelines the PSC would have to adopt are laid out in the legislation.
According to the Alabama Code, the PSC has the power to regulate retail power that’s sold to customers, not the independent power producers that sell power to utilities such as Alabama Power Co. or Alabama Gas Co. Municipal utilities, the Tennessee Valley Authority and PowerSouth Energy Cooperative fall under the purview of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, not the PSC.
This bill would allow the PSC to regulate power producers that use wind turbines or wind farms to create power.
In order to get a permit, the company would have to submit a plot plan, a physical rendering and a plan that would stipulate how the property would be restored to its natural state after the system is no longer operational, among other things. There are also specific construction-and-design requirements laid out in the bill.
The PSC also would have to hold a public hearing, the comments from which can be considered when determining whether to grant a permit. The company also would be responsible for paying a $1,000 fee for the system, as well as any engineering fees, inspection fees and attorney fees the PSC incurs while reviewing the application.
The bill also would stipulate specific setback minimums and decibel maximums, which Buckley said are the two provisions that likely would put an end to the projects.
The bill requires that the turbines not be louder than 50 decibels measured at the nearest property line. The system also has to be five times the length of the height of the turbine away from residential or commercial structures and public use areas.
It also can’t be less than 1.5 times the sum of the turbine tower and the measure of turbine blade away from a public use road. The turbines likely would be 80 to 110 meters, or 262 to 360 feet, Buckley said.
Buckley said they would be fine with the decibel requirements if the sound were measured at a commercial or residential property – which is where measures are usually taken – instead of at the property line. He said the closest any wind turbine would be to a house or building is 3,000 feet in Cherokee County, and 1,800 feet with the Etowah County project.
He said 50 decibels would be similar to the sound of air conditioning or heating system running in a building.
The Cherokee County project is close to a public park, and therefore wouldn’t meet the “five times” setback requirement.
Williams said wind projects shouldn’t be given a “leg up” and should be subject to regulation.
“Some wind farms work and I get that,” said Williams, who represents the Senate district where the wind farms are being proposed. “But not at the expense of our citizens.”
Williams said he has concerns about the safety of the turbines, especially when it comes to lightning strikes and ice that can be thrown from them. He said no one wants to see wind turbines near an area where people hike and bike. He said he took action when he started hearing from his constituents.
According to PSC spokeswoman Angier Johnson, the commission had no input on the bill and doesn’t have an official position on it.
State policies on wind regulation
Tom Stanton, the author of a 2012 national study on wind park siting and zoning conducted by the National Regulatory Research Institute, found that there were 26 states in which the primary authority on wind regulation came from the state government.
He said many of the local regulations are created because of concern about what could happen if a tower tips over, crumbles or ice gets thrown from the blades.
According to Georgia’s model wind ordinance guide, which was developed by the Georgia Wind Working Group and the Land Use Clinic at the University of Georgia School of Law, the setback distances from property lines, public use roads and occupied buildings ranges from zero to 1.5 times the wind turbine height, depending on the category of property and size of the generator.
The recommended audible sound from wind facilities to property lines of surrounding landowners is 55 decibels, which is a mid-range average taken from several wind ordinances in other jurisdictions, according to the guide.
Delaware, Rhode Island, Virginia, Wyoming and South Dakota are the only states with statewide requirements for setback. Delaware, Rhode Island and Virginia are also the only states with a statewide sound minimum and also have few or no wind facilities.
Stanton said at a certain point, if setbacks are too large, wind farms are no longer economical to build. Companies typically will seek out wind-farm friendly places.
With regard to quality and safety, Stanton said it’s difficult to find a financial institution that will loan money for wind facilities without due diligence reports about engineering and construction. He said banks are cautious to make sure they’re being constructed in a place where there’s a lot of wind, that the equipment comes with a guarantee that they’ll last the life of the loan and to make sure repairs and maintenance are part of the contract for the equipment.
“It’s natural for people who have no experience with a wind farm to ask a lot of questions because it’s very new and different,” said Susan Slowan, vice president of state policy for the American Wind Energy Association.
Slowan said in states that have embraced wind power, including Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Minnesota and Colorado, communities want wind turbines.
“They have experience with it, they’re comfortable with it, they’ve benefitted from it,” she said. “I think part of this is a learning curve on what the industry is. The benefits are clear for the local community, but there’s also long-term predictably priced power.”
In 2012, Alabama Power entered into 20-year contracts with wind farms in Kansas and Oklahoma for purchase of about 404 megawatts of power, which is enough to power 115,000 homes in Alabama.
Slowan said when a portion of a state’s power comes from wind conversion, prices become more stable because companies rely less on coal and fuel, where prices change constantly.
“Having a balance is good for consumers,” she said.