Who will be the first to erect wind turbines in the state of Alabama?
Not Pioneer Green Energy. They have halted plans for an industrial wind turbine project on top of scenic Lookout Mountain in northeast Alabama. NextERA has announced wind projects in Jackson and Madison Counties, and others have a project planned in Cleburne County. A proposed wind development in Baldwin County was denied last year, when the county commission obtained clarity from the state legislature through a local bill regarding their ability to regulate such towers under their zoning statute.
Why all this interest in Alabama?
Developers are seeking new territory for energy corporations who are looking to take advantage of lucrative federal subsidies and federal and state tax credits for alternative energy. Alabama is a target, because of a lack of regulation on this type of energy producing industry in unincorporated areas of the state.
When Leesburg resident Shannon Mackey found out about Pioneer Green’s plans to place turbines at Cherokee Rock Village, one of the top 10 rock climbing venues in the country, he began protesting at public meetings and started a Facebook page called Save Cherokee Rock Village with the goal of stopping the project. It currently has over 3,600 followers.
Mackey and others are concerned about interference of huge turbines with park activities and the negative impact on the environment. Mackey said,
“The blasting and drilling into the rock for the base of the turbines could cause major damage to the rock face and surrounding property.”
Controversy surrounds industrial wind turbines around the country, because they are notorious for killing birds and bats. As early as last year the National Audubon Society criticized the Environmental Protection Agency for allowing 30 year eagle-take permits. There are bald eagles, Indiana bats, and other endangered species known to be in the area of the proposed turbine site along Shinbone Ridge overlooking Weiss Lake.
Once Pioneer Green made their plans public to build a total of 60 turbines spanning two counties, opposition escalated dramatically. Opponents learned from information filed with the Federal Aviation Administration the turbines were to be 570’ tall. Blades from turbines of this height span the length of a 747 jumbo jet and have a generator hub the size of a school bus.
Citizens raised concerns with their local governing officials only to find out there were no regulations regarding siting of such an industrial development in a residential area, which could cause a devaluation of their property and the residents to suffer negative effects from shadow flicker, noise pollution, and infrasound emitted by the giant turbines.
In the spring of 2013 concerned citizens approached members of the legislative delegation of Cherokee and Etowah Counties to introduce local bills to give their county commissions authority to enact regulations to protect property owners. Time ran out in the session without any movement of the bills.
Two lawsuits based on potential nuisance complaints were filed by residents in both Etowah and Cherokee counties, and a third has been filed in Cleburne County. Leesburg property owner Ginny Shaver said,
“Without any zoning regulations to buffer industrial development from rural residential and recreational tourism property, we are forced to seek protection for our personal property rights from the court.”
Cherokee and Cleburne County plaintiffs are represented by Centre attorney Chad Hopper.
In the meantime, Senator Phil Williams (R) pre-filed a bill to regulate turbines statewide to be introduced in the 2014 legislative session, later referred to as Senate Bill 12, or SB12. It was almost identical to the local bills, but contained a clause that exempted Cleburne County, represented by Senator Gerald Dial (R). Representative Becky Nordgren (R) introduced a companion bill in the House of Representatives. Local bills for Cherokee and Etowah Counties were introduced again as well.
Citizens petitioned the councils of the City of Gadsden, the Town of Leesburg, and the Cherokee County Commission, and all passed resolutions in support of SB12. However, at least one dozen energy related corporations hired lobbyists to represent their interests in Montgomery.
Ordinary people from across the state joined together in a group called No Wind Alabama. Organizer, Mitzi Eaker, stated the name was chosen because according to information from the U.S. Department of Energy, there is not sustainable wind for energy production in the state of Alabama. No Wind Alabama members were instrumental in educating the public and legislators of the possible negative health, environmental, and economic effects on Alabama’s communities. A third group, Wind Swindle Alabama, also seeks to share information and is named for the turbines for tax dollars aspect driving the alternative energy movement.
Wind industry developers promised landowners and local governments a boon of cash from leases and tax revenues. However, lease payments were tied to wind energy production and therefore uncertain. In addition to available federal subsidies and tax credits, an Alabama act passed in 2008 gives state tax credits to certain alternative energy developments and provides an avenue for local tax abatement.
As SB12 progressed through the legislative process, Senator Williams met with lobbyists and representatives from other interested parties and agreed to several changes to the statewide bill. Many residents of Etowah and Cherokee Counties who originally requested the local bills were not included in the negotiations and were not pleased with the changes. At the urging of citizens, the local bills passed both chambers and were signed into law by Governor Bentley.
When SB12 made its way to the House of Representatives Commerce and Small Business Committee, with William’s support the bill was amended to supercede the local bills just adopted for Cherokee and Etowah Counties. On the floor of the House, Representative Becky Nordgren (R), tabled William’s amended version of SB12 and introduced a new version which restored some of the original protective provisions and allowed the local bills for Baldwin, Cherokee, and Etowah to remain in effect. It also added a temporary moratorium to allow Cleburne County time to seek protection from their delegation. After debating the statewide bill for over an hour, it died on the floor of the House.
The local bills for Cherokee and Etowah Counties require distance and noise setbacks representatives of wind companies say amounts to a ban on wind turbines in those counties. Pioneer Green Energy has opted to look elsewhere and is currently working on a site in Somerset County, Maryland, near an Air Force base. They are finding controversy there as well, where the turbines may interfere with radar which is a part of our national defense system.
For residents like Larry Gibbs, Pioneer Green leaving the state of Alabama culminates a David vs. Goliath battle with people who came together to defeat giant corporations with an unlimited money supply that attempted to influence legislation. Gibbs says,
“It is a big win and a great day for the people and Alabama the Beautiful”
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