ANDERSON COUNTY, TENN. – Atop a 3,366-foot Appalachian ridge, wind bent the uppermost branches of the trees as the blades of 387-foot-tall wind turbines whirled above them Thursday.
Against the blue, cloud-studded sky, the blades looked as if they were moving slowly. But the whoosh of wind as one turbine spun gave a clue to their true speed: about 150 mph, said David Dehart, a representative of the Tennessee Valley Authority, leading a tour of Buffalo Mountain, which is for now the only wind farm in the Southeast.
That unique status may soon change. Developers have been conducting wind studies all over Alabama, including at Turkey Heaven Mountain in Cleburne County and at Shinbone Ridge in Cherokee and Etowah counties, to see if wind farms would be a good fit in the state. Since news came out that a developer is exploring Cleburne County as a possible site for a wind energy project, some residents have campaigned against it. They and others who are curious about the project have packed Cleburne County Commission meetings to ask questions or make their feelings known.
In Montgomery, a bill that would regulate the potential wind industry also drew crowds, those opposing wind farms in their areas and companies hoping to protect their ability to build in the state. The bill died when the Legislature adjourned in early April, but lawmakers did pass two local bills to give local governments in Etowah and Cherokee counties the ability to approve or reject wind farm projects.
Robin Saiz, a developer with Nations Energy Systems, who has worked on wind studies in Cleburne County since 2011, said the market, which has worked in wind-rich areas of the Midwest and the West, has finally turned its eyes to the Southern states.
“You couldn’t do it in the Southeast,” Saiz said of wind farms. “There were … so many opportunities to build wind projects in the Midwest, and in much more windy sites, the turbines were made for those sites.”
In the last 10 years, however, wind technology has become more efficient, Saiz and others said, allowing the turbines to produce electricity in less ideal conditions.
Proposals for wind farms in Cleburne County and at Shinbone Ridge in Cherokee County have drawn public outcry from opponents. TVA didn’t have to deal with that at Buffalo Mountain, said Scott Brooks, a public relations representative for the agency.
On the contrary, the wind farm has become something of a tourist attraction, according to locals. Tina Treece, the city manager of nearby Oliver Springs, said construction of the turbines required paving a road to the top of the mountain. When that road was paved, the Coal Creek Co., which owns the land the turbine farm occupies, also built Windrock Park, a campground with motorcycle and all-terrain-vehicle trails that end just as the wind turbines come into view. Both the campground and the turbines draw people who fill up their vehicles in town and eat at the local restaurants, Treece said. She said that since she started working for the city two years ago, people from as far as Germany have come to view the wind turbines.
“The city financially hasn’t received any monetary benefit,” Treece said. “The additional traffic is where we benefit.”
Brent Galloway, general manager of Coal Creek, which leases the property to TVA’s private partner, Invenergy, and runs the campgrounds, said the turbines are an icon in the park. The company sells permits to visitors to use the trails.
“We have enough demand for people that are just wanting to come see the wind turbines that we came up with a permit,” Galloway said. “We charge a flat fee of $17 per car and you can come take a look at them.”
Brandon Watson of Soddy Daisy, Tenn., and his dad Travis Watson of Hixson, Tenn., were at the park Thursday in their ATV, hoping to get a glimpse of the turbines, they said.
“Just to see ’em in action,” 23-year-old Brandon Watson said.
He holds a degree in nuclear engineering and is very interested in the wind energy projects and has researched them for school.
“I was surprised to hear they were up here,” he said. “They got them in the craziest places.”
Turbines have come under fire for their danger to birds and bats, according to Simon Mahan, renewable energy manager for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a nonprofit advocacy group. But the turbines must be compared to the other electricity producing technologies and the effects they have on the environment, he said.
“No energy resource is completely free of environmental impact,” Mahan said. “Wind energy is one of the safest, cleanest and best energy sources for our environment.”
The wind turbines burn no fuel, have no air emissions, release no water pollutants, consume no water and the land can be returned to its original use after the turbines are no longer in use, he said.
Some people in Cleburne County think the Turkey Heaven project could be a boon for the community. Ryan Robertson, Cleburne County’s probate judge and chairman of the County Commission, said 25 turbines valued at $2 million each could bring in more than $555,000 in property taxes to the county each year. The school system would receive $255,000 of that, Robertson said.
Chase Hulsey, a Ranburne native, said he hopes the project will locate in Cleburne County. Hulsey worked for Granite, Run Energy and Evolution, contractors for GE that build and maintain wind turbines, until about a year and a half ago. He left the job because it required so much travel and he has a family to take care of now, Hulsey said.
“It was constant traveling,” Hulsey said. “I moved to 20 different farms one year.”
But Hulsey loved working on the turbines and would like to get back into it, he said. With his mechanical and welding background, he was bringing in between $1,500 and $2,000 a week, Hulsey said. It allowed him a lot of independence during his work hours. And the turbines are often built in beautiful places, he said.
Hulsey said the communities he worked in didn’t gain many jobs from the wind farms except during construction, when 200 people or more could work on the projects. But some were able to capitalize on the projects. He remembers a development in Spirit Lake, Iowa, that was built with one tower in the middle of the city, and the rest outside the town, Hulsey said. The one in the city was a destination for tourists, he said.
Mahan, of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, speculated that power rates in Alabama could be an explanation for the interest in wind energy companies here.
Alabama Power spokesman Ike Pigott said a lack of regulation of the wind energy companies in the state may be a draw. But many states have little regulation for the relatively new industry.
Georgia has no state-level regulations with the Public Services Commission, said Bill Edge, a spokesman for the agency. He said he didn’t know of any wind energy projects planned for his state.
Georgia isn’t focusing on wind energy at this time, Edge said. It is working to increase solar energy production, he added.
According to a map of wind speed averages by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Georgia and Alabama have about the same wind speed averages at 100 meters above the ground.
Michael Churchman, director of the Alabama Environmental Council, said with the interest in building wind energy projects in Alabama, it would be good for the state to enact some regulations. The regulations give businesses a groundwork to build within, he said. It can also guide siting the turbines, which can have a real impact on the environment.
“Whenever you’re looking at the environmental impacts, that’s the biggest thing,” Churchman said.
Where turbines are placed can determine the quality of life for the people and the wildlife around them, Churchman said. His group created a list of proposed regulations it calls “Common Sense Regulations” that address factors including noise requirements, how low the blades can be from the ground, and how far turbines can be constructed from residences and roads.
An extra source
When the power is out it can be an inconvenience or in the middle of winter, an unbearable situation. Like a financial portfolio, the more diverse the sources of electricity available, the more reliably and reasonably electricity can be produced, Neil Placer, senior analyst at TVA, another speaker at the tour told guests on the Buffalo Mountain tour Thursday.
The 15 windmills spread over 1,200 acres at Wind Energy Center, owned by Invenergy, have been operating since 2004.
In that time, the turbines have averaged an output of 44,000 megawatt hours per year, enough to power 3,100 homes, Placer said. It’s a small percentage of the energy that TVA produces, but it’s another source to add stability to the energy base provided by hydroelectric dams, nuclear plants and plants that burn fossil fuels, he and Brooks said. And as wind turbine technology improves, the output will also improve, Placer said.
The first three windmills, constructed there in 2000 by TVA, have been stilled for the last few years, Brooks said. Those windmills are “out-of-step” with the newer, larger Vesta 90s named for the diameter of the turbines – 90 meters. The older Vesta 47s had a capacity of 660 kilowatt hours. The Vesta 90s installed just four years later had a capacity of 1,800 kilowatts.
Ten years later, Nations Energy Systems is looking at slightly larger blades of 95 to 100 meters (295 to 328 feet) for its Cleburne County project, with an improved capacity of 2,300 to 3,000 kilowatts, Saiz said. The base of the wind turbine would be about the same size as those in Tennessee, Saiz said. The height of the base isn’t as important as the reach of the blades, he said.
“The bigger the area that’s swept, the more wind you can capture,” Dehart said during the tour.
The efficiency of the turbines has also improved, Saiz said. Today’s turbines are quieter and operate more efficiently with less wind.
Dehart noted on the tour that the Buffalo Mountain turbines have operated at an average of 20 percent of total capacity. However, the turbines can operate at 30 percent, 40 percent or even 50 percent today, Dehart said.
Nations Energy Systems is considering three different designs, including Vesta, Siemens and GE, but has yet to decide which wind turbine would be best for the Turkey Heaven site – if it decides to build there, Saiz said. The wind studies will be finished and a decision should be made in 2015 about whether it will be feasible to build in Cleburne County, Saiz has said.
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