Wind power not just a lot of hot air

Along Western North Carolina’s highest ridgelines, the wind never stops. And it blows hard, too, as a recently updated “wind map” of the state reveals. According to Professor Dennis Scanlin, coordinator of Appalachian State University’s Appropriate Technology program, WNC is blessed with thousands of acres of what’s known in wind-energy industry parlance as class 5, 6 and 7 “wind regimes”: rare and potentially very valuable sites with annual average wind speeds in excess of 15 miles per hour.

As Scanlin explained at the 2002 North Carolina Wind Summit, held at ASU Dec. 9, in these high wind speeds, modern utility-scale wind turbines can produce electricity for less than 3 cents per kilowatt-hour. That’s cheaper than nuclear power. Cheaper than coal. Cheaper, even, than natural gas. In fact, wind power produced in class 5 and above wind regimes is the cheapest form of electric power currently available in the U.S. And with an average annual growth rate of more than 30 percent over the past half-decade, wind is also the fastest-growing sector of the energy industry.

Today’s wind turbines are quiet and reliable, with a proven record of performance. They don’t pollute, are not dependent on foreign fuel supplies, and won’t poison huge areas in case of malfunction — or terrorist attack. Wind energy is already producing tax revenues for municipalities throughout the Midwest, providing extra income for owners of windy property, and creating high-paying jobs (both in manufacturing and in operations-and-maintenance). In short, wind is good for both the environment and the economy. That’s the message representatives of the U.S. Department of Energy, the North Carolina Department of Energy, the National Renewable Energy Lab and wind developers from around the country shared with the 50-plus attendees at the daylong conference.

Given these facts, the summit’s subtitle — “Is Wind in Our Future?” — seemed to be posing a rhetorical question. Yet as several conference speakers revealed, utility-scale wind energy faces some serious challenges in WNC.

The greatest of these, as the Tennessee Valley Authority discovered earlier this summer, is the Mountain Ridge Protection Act. Passed in 1983, the state law prohibits buildings more than 40 feet tall on most ridgelines in WNC. TVA had planned to expand its wind program (which currently consists of a three-turbine, 2 megawatt “wind garden” outside Knoxville) by building a full-blown, 20 MW “wind farm” on Stone Mountain in Tennessee, a site perilously close to the North Carolina border. Citing the Ridge Protection Act, N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper nixed TVA’s plans. Despite a provision that exempts “structures of a relatively slender nature such as … windmills” from the law, Cooper felt that wind turbines, which often reach heights of 250 feet or more, might compromise North Carolina’s scenic beauty.

Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, placed a slide on the projector screen that clearly illustrated the extent to which traditional energy production has already compromised North Carolina’s scenic beauty. Smith’s photo showed the skeletal remains of trees killed in record numbers by acid rain and an insidious shift in soil chemistry — both courtesy of pollution resulting from fossil-fuel combustion. Another slide featured the ever-diminishing mountain views in WNC, also due to fossil-fuel pollution. Unless we shift to alternative methods of power production, argued Smith, there will be no scenic beauty left to protect.

Scanlin addressed the “visual pollution” issue head-on, showing stepped-back slides of wind turbines installed in Pennsylvania at distances of half a mile, three miles and six miles. In the first slide, a single machine appears colossal. At three miles, the line of giant wind turbines is barely visible. At six miles, it can’t be seen at all.

Anticipating another potential objection to wind energy in WNC, Curtis Smalling — the founder of the Boone-based Mountain Avian Research Initiative and a member of the National Audubon Society — discussed bird deaths at wind-energy sites. Utility-scale wind turbines in the U.S., he said, kill an average of two birds per turbine, per year (about 30,000 birds annually). Smalling, an avid birder, went on to note that as many as 80 million birds are killed every year in collisions with cars and trucks. Up to a billion birds die flying into windows each year. And domestic house cats may kill as many as a billion-and-a-half birds annually. “To a birder, of course, one bird is too many,” said Smalling. “No one knows for sure how many birds are killed directly by oil spills, or inadvertently from climate change and other effects of fossil-fuel pollution. So it’s really important to put bird kills from wind turbines into this context.”

Kevin Rackstraw, head of eastern North American operations for Clipper Windpower, a private company, suggested that simple precautions could reduce bird mortality at wind sites. First, avoid placing machines in known bird-migration corridors; and second, shut down turbines in sensitive areas at dawn and dusk, when birds are most active. Rackstraw also emphasized the importance of working with groups like Audubon, rather than against them.

That sentiment meshed with the overall message of conference presenters: that the success of wind energy in WNC will depend in large part on how effectively proponents build coalitions among environmental groups and raise public awareness of the real benefits of wind power.

To learn more about wind and other forms of renewable energy in North Carolina, visit the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association’s Web site (www.ncsolar.org). And beginning next summer, NC GreenPower — a voluntary program administered by North Carolina utilities — will enable consumers to buy “green electrons” produced by wind, solar, biomass and hydro facilities. Besides supporting existing renewable-energy sources, program revenues will fund construction of new production facilities.

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