Residents from across the county were carefully studying photos showing the possible visual impacts of proposed wind turbines on Millstone Mountain last week at a series of open house events in Crab Orchard and Fairfield Glade.
“Utility poles or cell towers are more noticeable,” said Nina Urbanik, of Fairfield Glade. “People want their creature comforts.”
But others disagreed.
Rudy Buchholz said, “They’re unsightly. They’ll ruin the top of the mountain.”
The tallest turbines that could be used in the project would be 656 feet high, though Harry Snyder, development manager for the proposed 71 megawatt (MW) project, said the tallest that could realistically be used would be slightly smaller at around 600 feet, including the sweep of the turbine blades.
“The visual studies assume the largest and the greatest number of turbines,” Snyder said. “The noise study assumes the loudest turbines, the most noise and wind blowing in all directions.”
The example photos showed the visual impact from a number of locations around the county, including Main St. in Crab Orchard, Fairfield Glade’s Bluff View Terrace, atop Black Mountain, and at the Homestead Tower. From Main St. in Crab Orchard, the turbines are visible when looking up over the US Post Office. A line along the ridge in the horizon shows the turbines from the top of the Homestead Tower. The turbines are slightly visible from Bluff View Terrace and Black Mountain.
Sharon Brown, who lives in Ozone on the other side of the project area, said the arguments of “unsightly” turbines were not valid.
“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure and I think it would be kind of nice to look at, actually,” she said. “I’m actually pretty close to it and I hope I’ll be able to see it.”
Brown was also not convinced noise would be an issue.
“The interstate is much noisier,” she said. “I don’t think there will be anyone close enough to be bothered by the sound.”
Jean Cheely, who owns property in Crab Orchard and in the area of the wind farm project, disagreed.
“Downtown Crab Orchard is going to get rocked,” she said.
The company looked at the noise level across several miles. In a worst-case scenario, internal noise studies show the noise level at Crab Orchard Town Hall will be around 35 dBA. Apex personnel have previously compared 40 dBA to the equivalent of a home heating and air conditioning unit. According to a measurement of more than 1,700 sounds by the Noise Navigator (TM) at the University of Michigan Department of Environmental Health Science, crickets have a noise level of 50 dBA, refrigerators have a noise level of 40 to 68 dBA, and Rice Krispies cereal after milk is poured has a sound level of 30 dBA.
Current background noise at the Crab Orchard Town Hall exceeds 50 dBA, Snyder said. In Fairfield Glade, at Bluff View Terrace, the internal noise under worst-case scenario studies is about 18 dBA – about the equivalent of someone whispering.
Brown said she felt the wind farm, which will be visible from Interstate 40, could signal the area is ready for more development and new jobs and manufacturing.
“I think it might make it look like we were open to development,” she said.
Cathy Tipton disagreed.
“This is not the kind of economic development we need,” she said. “It does not benefit the average county resident.”
A study by the University of Tennessee Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy has estimated the project would provide a one-time economic boost to Cumberland County of $27.3 million with seven full-time employees once construction is complete. Apex has estimated local tax payments to be $250,000 to $350,000 a year, though opponents question those figures.
Buccholz said the Anderson County trustee reported tax collections from the Buffalo Mountain wind farm of $137,740 annually. Buffalo Mountain is a 27 MW wind farm owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority.
“And we don’t need the energy,” he said.
Jordon Johnson, a Fairfield Glade resident who grew up in East Texas, disagreed.
“We know Nashville is in the top 10 fastest-growing metro areas. There will be a future power deficit,” he said. “I experienced power outages [in Texas] because we didn’t have enough power. This is needed. It’s a step towards providing for future generations.”
He also dismissed the concerns about “unsightly” wind turbines noting the skyline of East Texas was riddled with oil derricks, as well as more wind turbines than any other state.
“We do not mind utilizing the power as long as it is not in our backyard,” he said.
Some concerns include that Apex will sell the wind farm, possibly even before completion, to another company or entity.
“Apex has built seven wind farms in four years and sold them,” said Steve Remmert, a resident of Fairfield Glade.
Several have commented they do not agree with federal tax credits, which many contend are the only thing that make the project economically viable for the company and investors.
Snyder explained Apex receives no tax credits for development of a wind farm facility. They will often develop a project and seek financing in the form of investors – large companies investing in either tax credits or sponsor equity. The sponsor equity investor, Snyder said, is the “owner.”
“Their name is on the facility and they get paid last,” he said. “They want the facility to be productive for the 25-year project life.”
Tax credits are based on production. Current production tax credits for wind energy are 2.3 cents per kilowatt hour (KWh). The credits will be reduced by 20 percent each year through 2019, with projects beginning construction in 2017 paid 1.84 cents per KWh. The credits apply to the first 10 years of operation. Those credits area also phased out if contracted electricity prices from the wind resource reach a certain level.
“If we’re not producing power, we’re not getting those credits,” Snyder said.
As for the property owners, the leases they’ve signed and agreed to with Apex remain enforceable even if the project is purchased by an investor.
“The leases govern the way the project is run throughout its life,” Snyder said.
In many cases, the companies investing in or purchasing the facilities do not have the expertise to operate a wind farm. Apex will then become the operations and maintenance contractor.
Remmert said, “They become the bus driver. If the bus breaks down, you’re not going to get the driver to fix it. There is no life-cycle responsibility.”
Because of the long life of a wind farm facility, Snyder said having the backing of the larger companies, with greater financial resources, was a positive for the land owners. In addition, leases include bonds to ensure windmills are decommissioned and removed at the end of the project life.
The majority of a project’s cost is incurred on the front end with the construction of the turbines. In the event the owner of the wind farm was to declare bankruptcy, the turbines would still be producing and selling power, Snyder said.
Others have questioned how the leases affect the use of the land. Snyder explained Apex is purchasing the right to construct wind turbines on the land and collect the wind resource.
“There will be minimal impact overall on land use,” Snyder said. “The only thing we would restrict would be a large silo or something that would restrict the wind flow.”
Other uses for the land would be up to the individual land owners. Hunting, which is popular in the area today, would not be restricted.
“It’s still private land owners. We don’t have the right to tell landowners to allow or not allow something,” Snyder said.
The land has been used for quarrying and even some exploratory oil wells in the past as well as logging operations. There are two houses within the immediate area of the turbines, with no homes within a half-mile of the project.
The 7,000 acres under lease includes a large tract owned by Lone Star Energy Inc. However, there are local landowners involved, as well, with the company continuing to negotiate with another owner in the area.
Robert Rice, one of the owners who lives in Westel, said, “It’s a good idea for everybody involved. If we want to have green energy, somebody has to step up and say, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it. If we don’t have coal or nuclear, we had to do something or we’ll be in the dark. This is an acceptable alternative.”
While the project includes 7,000 acres, Apex says the project area is the 1,800 acres along the mountain ridge.
“We’re bound by Catoosa [Wildlife Management Area] to the north and I-40 to the south,” Snyder said.
Apex is currently working on an agreement with TVA to tap into one of the two high voltage transmission lines that dissect the project area – a 161 KV line and 500 KV line. They are completing a system impact and facility study.
Snyder explained the size of Crab Orchard Wind, 71 MW, is actually the best size for the project because it makes the most efficient use of the wind resource and reduces construction costs. Projects over 75 MW would require the company to construct a substation. Three to four turbines would be connected with one line back to the transmission lines through a single ditch.
The turbines would be spaced about one-quarter mile apart in a single line along the east side of the ridge facing the predominately southern wind.
Remmert questioned the available wind resource atop Millstone Mountain as well as the incidence of lightning strikes in the area.
“It’s going to be idle 80 percent of the time,” he said.
Snyder said there has been a meteorological tower measuring wind data for four years, beginning with initial studies by BP before. Apex added additional towers, about 200 feet high, when it acquired the project from BP.
“The Southeast has a stable wind regime,” Snyder explained. “As you go up in height, the wind speed goes up.”
That’s why Crab Orchard Wind will utilize taller turbines, he said. Technology advancements in turbines, such as higher capacity turbines, have made the project viable where it might not have been cost effective in recent years past, Snyder added.
Another concern has been the impact on migratory birds.
According to the State of the Birds 2014 report, produced by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, wind turbines account for 234,000 bird deaths of all species each year across the United States. Cats kill an estimated 2.4 billion. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports a total harvest of ducks of 220,200 during the 2014 hunting season.
Others cited anecdotal reports of health effects from wind turbines – everything from headaches and sleep disturbance to aggressive behavior and birth defects in animals.
According to a peer-reviewed article published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, “Health effects related to wind turbine noise exposure: a systematic review,” authors concluded wind turbines can increase the risk of annoyance and self-reported sleep disturbance, though there appears “to be a tolerable level of around LAeq of 35 dB [equivalent continuous level – average]. Of the many other claimed health effects of wind turbine noise exposure reported in the literature, however, no conclusive evidence could be found.” The authors recommended future studies focus on objectively demonstrating whether or not measurable health-related outcomes can be proven to fluctuate depending on exposure to wind turbines.
n Rebekah K. Bohannon Beeler contributed to this report.
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