Will wind-generated power save the environment or sacrifice it?
The answer depends on who you ask and it could have broad implications for the future of clean energy in North Carolina.
In a debate raging in the General Assembly, Western North Carolina senators are calling for limits to the development of large-scale wind power in the mountains. Wind-power advocates say the proposal would be a death blow to the alternative technology, effectively blocking off some of the state’s greatest untapped wind potential.
The proposal would only permit windmills under 100 feet used to power a single home. In contrast, windmills used for large-scale energy production often extend 400 feet into the air.
“It’s not worth the compromise it gives to our sense of place and the beauty of the mountains,” Sen. Joe Sam Queen (D-Waynesville) said of the larger turbines.
Others argue that the benefits of generating cleaner energy through windmills outweigh any aesthetic argument, and that lawmakers could be committing a grave mistake if they pass the proposal.
“Wind is our greatest chance for making renewable energy in the state,” said Quint David, outreach coordinator for Appalachian State University’s Renewable Energy Initiative. “[The bill] would effectively kill the hope of wind technology in the mountains.”
This isn’t the first heated debate over what structures to allow on mountain ridgetops. The current law on the books, known as the Ridge Law, was adopted in 1983 in response to the construction of a 10-story condo on the top of Sugar Mountain in Avery County. The law forbids the construction of buildings over 40 feet tall on ridges with an elevation of 3,000 feet or more. But under the Ridge Law, some structures are exempt — including windmills. The law leaves it up to local governments to define a windmill, including the height and size of such a structure.
“The law has an exception for windmills, and it’s ambiguous as to what’s legal or not,” David said.
Because the law isn’t clear, developers of wind technology have stayed away from North Carolina — unsure of whether their structures will be challenged.
“Developers don’t want to risk millions to have to go to court to figure out what the Ridge Law really means,” David explained.
So state legislators enlisted the help of environmental agencies and wind energy groups to establish a system to define and permit windmill structures. The legislation would also determine where windmills could and couldn’t be — they would be banned in protected areas, like national forests.
“The idea was to preserve places that there shouldn’t be wind development, but at the same time, provide an opportunity for wind development in other places,” said Avram Friedman, founder of the Canary Coalition, a clean-air advocacy group.
Then, several weeks ago, senators Queen, Martin Nesbitt, D-Asheville, and John Snow, D-Murphy introduced a modification to the bill that would effectively ban large-scale windmills across the board in the mountains. Queen said the action was an attempt to strictly enforce the Ridge Law.
“The pressure is strong, but one thing we shouldn’t do is compromise the Ridge Law,” Queen said. “What we stand for is an appreciation of that law.”
Supporters of wind energy balked at the modification, waging a protest that temporarily staved off the proposal’s passage. The bill is currently stalled in the General Assembly, and the debate has garnered national attention. The New York Times called such a ban “virtually unprecedented.”
“Your senators are very brave in what they’re doing,” said Lisa Lingoes of New Hampshire-based Wind Action, a group critical of wind technology. “The legislature already concluded when it adopted the Ridge ordinance that your mountains have cultural significance to the state. When asked now to consider whether that value is worth more — or less — than wind generated electrons on the grid, your mountain senators are doing what most politicians in the U.S. have not done. They’re putting a cold eye to the options and deciding wind is not worth the sacrifice, at least for now.”
Advocates of wind energy seem taken aback by the conclusion of the mountain-area senators.
“This permitting bill has been years in the making, getting all these groups together to make something we all agree on,” David said.
The permitting process would establish strict guidelines for windmill location and environmental impact — rules that would seem to ease the legislators’ concerns about building on ridges. Yet the guidelines can’t erase the intrinsic question of whether such large structures belong on mountaintops.
“We’re back to sort of arguing about the impacts that are harder to quantify,” David said.
Eye of the beholder
Queen, Nesbitt, and Snow say much of their argument in favor of windmill limits is based on aesthetics. To many, mountain views are priceless — and shouldn’t be compromised at any cost.
Queen calls the ridges in question — those over 3,000 feet — “the top of the Christmas tree for us.”
After taking out all protected ridges in this category, “You just have a very few other ridges left, and we would change the whole landscape for wind opportunity,” Queen said.
Charles Johnson, a Waynesville resident, is one of many constituents who support Queen’s views.
“You look at all the photography people have taken, and you wouldn’t’ have those kind of views anymore,” Johnson said. “Any structure on top of ridgelines that spoils the view, I think it’s a very poor idea.”
Views define the mountain economy, and have helped grow both the tourism industry and second-home market. Wind energy advocates deny that windmills would have an adverse effect on either of these. David cites a study by the British Wind Energy Association that found wind farms to be popular tourist destinations, with thousands of people flocking to visit them each year in the U.K.
“In some respects, tourism even increases,” said David,
Others are skeptical.
“I don’t think people are going to come to the mountains to see wind turbines,” says Don Hendershot, a local naturalist who has written about the issues associated with wind turbines in a weekly column for this newspaper.
In contrast, visitors to the mountains “are seeking a wild, natural, and quiet experience,” Linowes said. “Finding giant turbines and miles of new 36-foot wide roads leading up to and along the mountain top does not inspire awe and feelings of being with nature.”
Arguing about the impacts of wind turbines involves a lot of back and forth. It seems no matter the issue, those for windmills and those who question them have a study to back their point of view. For instance, turbine opponents say windmills kill tens of thousands of birds each year; wind advocates say such numbers are likely exaggerated. Those not in favor of windmills say they cause property values to drop; windmill supporters cite studies that show property values staying the same, or even increasing because windmills “heighten the profile of communities near them.”
Linowes says the wind industry ignores the very real impact windmills have on the surrounding environment.
“The wind industry has established a pattern over many years of denying that industrial wind energy facilities cause significant impacts in these areas,” Linowes said.
Meanwhile, wind energy supporters accuse those in the other camp of using any excuse to keep windmills out of their sight.
“It’s sort of a not in my backyard sentiment — I’m for it, but I’m not for it here,” David said. “It’s the same with nuclear, and it’s the same with coal. We’re pushing over these mountains that aren’t in our backyard, while pretending we’re protecting the mountains by not allowing wind. People aren’t seeing the big picture.”
The mountains hold more promise than any other region of the state when it comes to harnessing wind power, say advocates of the technology.
“We have one of the greatest wind resources in the country because we have high winds on ridgetops,” David says. “In the mountains per kilowatt, wind will generate more than solar and water.”
The coast is the other region of the state where wind power could be generated, but there are limitations. One is cost.
“There’s a lot out there, but you have to go offshore,” David says. “The cost is more than twice of building a wind turbine on land.”
Because of the expense, developers are prone to ignore North Carolina’s coast in favor of cheaper swatches of land out west. In fact, there are no offshore wind farms currently in existence in the United States, David says.
Still, senators are pushing to focus wind energy development toward the coast.
“Down on the coast is where this needs to be tried,” Sen. Martin Nesbitt (D-Asheville) said.
Queen says at least there, windmills can be built several miles offshore and out of view of the beach.
“They can get away from them, but we have to put them on top of the biggest mountains,” Queen said.
But wind turbines wouldn’t overwhelm the mountains, supporters insist. When each protected ridge over 3,000 feet is taken out of the equation, only 5 percent of ridges with that elevation could potentially hold wind turbines.
“We’re not talking about every ridgetop,” Friedman assures. “We’re not talking about the Blue Ridge Parkway or the top of Mt. Mitchell. We’re talking about hundreds of ridges in the backcountry that are generally not seen by tourists ... places where there are already power lines and cell towers on the landscape.”
David says wind turbines could still be seen, but infrequently.
“Every now and then there would be a windfarm in a clustered location ... not on every ridge as people tend to think,” David says. “Probably you would never see more than 10 wind turbines on our mountains here.”
David envisions a likely maximum of 400 turbines, each powering about 400 homes.
Some in the opposing camp, however, question whether that’s enough power generated to make the cost and environmental impact of the turbines worthwhile.
Linowes estimates that erecting 400 2-megawatt turbines (or about five turbines per linear mile) would necessitate the construction of about 80 miles of roads in the mountains.
And Hendershot points out that if wind turbines were built on all 5 percent of the qualifying ridgetops, they would still only produce about 2 percent of the state’s total electricity.
“That’s not very much. Is it worth desecrating all those ridgetops?” Hendershot questioned.
To Johnson, the answer is no.
“The amount of power that’s generated is not worth the aesthetic cost,” Johnson said.
“Our mountains are more important than minor projects in wind energy,” agreed Queen.
Far from perfect
Wind power has some major limitations. Perhaps the most significant is that it’s not entirely reliable, since wind doesn’t blow constantly.
“Wind’s unpredictability is its Achilles heel,” says Linowes. “Ridgeline wind is unavailable when needed, shows up when unexpected, and when it does arrive, often behaves erratically.”
As a result, wind power has had to be reconsidered as an end-all approach for a cleaner energy.
“Wind was presented as being that panacea that was going to create all the electricity you need,” Hendershot says. “When people started putting them together and erected them, they found that when wind doesn’t blow, there’s no power.”
Hendershot cites a study that found no windfarm in the Eastern U.S. performs at more than 30 percent of its maximum capacity.
But despite its limitations, advocates of wind energy say wind power is still the most promising alternative technology in the mountain region.
“To effectively ban wind is shooting yourself in the foot. It’s one of the cheapest and cleanest ways to make the most green power,” David said. “In the mountains, per kilowatt, wind will generate more than solar and water.”
Wind power may have its own set of challenges, David says, but it’s a far cry better than the most commonly employed energy source — coal.
“We need to look for sources of energy that won’t destroy the mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia, and that won’t pollute more,” he said. “In my opinion, when we don’t utilize our green energy sources, we’re pushing over mountains to push over coal.”
Using wind power won’t completely wean consumers off coal. Linowes points out that when onshore winds diminish, coal often kicks in to fill the gap and ensure constant service.
“Having windmills everywhere won’t cut down on coal mining — there’s not enough energy produced,” Johnson adds. “You would have to put them all over the mountain and destroy the place.”
Those who question the use of wind power say people on both sides of the issue need to step back and study the technology more thoroughly before pursuing it.
“We’re in a heat to get as much renewable energy as possible, but there’s little consideration as to whether these are the best projects, whether they’re servicing our electricity needs,” Linowes said.
Hendershot says wind power has pros and cons, but ultimately lacks scientific, objective peer-reviewed research.
Those on the other side of the issue feel more certain of the technology’s potential.
“There are vast, abundant resources in the mountains for wind energy,” says Friedman.
“That’s the fact,” agrees David. “Whether we want to utilize it or not, that’s up to the people of North Carolina.”
Spruce Pine project launched debate
A proposed wind farm atop a mountain in Spruce Pine was the catalyst for the proposed ban on large, commercial windmills currently being considered by the General Assembly.
According to news stories that included interviews with Mitchell County officials, the Spanish company Acciona Energy was looking at a site near Spruce Mine that was formerly a feldspar mine. Local officials were supportive of the project.
Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, said the windmills under consideration in Mitchell County would be as high as a 15-story building. Queen, along with Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, and Sen. Martin Nesbitt, D-Asheville, are leading the fight in the General Assembly to ban the huge windmills.
Acciona and other companies began looking at North Carolina after passage of a 2007 law that requires utilities to tap renewable sources of energy. That law requires publicly held utilities to get 12.5 percent of their energy from renewable sources, while electrical co-operatives are required to secure 10 percent of their energy from renewable sources.