There's a cold wind blowing on the hopes of wind-energy advocates in Western North Carolina, thanks to a pending bill in the N.C. General Assembly. As early as May 12, state legislators will take up Senate Bill 1068 when they reconvene in the short session. The bill — which would establish a regulatory system for wind-energy farms — has stirred fierce debate between advocates and opponents of wind energy in the mountains of North Carolina, partly because of a controversial part of the bill that amends the 1983 ridge law to allow windmills only if they power a single residence.
In its initial form, Senate Bill 1068 was widely accepted as a comprehensive and robust piece of legislation designed to create a permitting process for wind farms in North Carolina. It underwent significant changes in committee, and after much debate and political pressure from Western North Carolina Democrats Sens. Martin Nesbitt, John Snow and Joe Sam Queen, the augmented bill passed the state Senate in the final days of the 2009 session.
As currently written, the bill functions as a de facto ban on commercial and community-scale wind turbines on windy North Carolina ridges. It would amend the Mountain Ridge Protection Act of 1983 to allow only windmills that are 100 feet tall or shorter and aimed at generating electricity for a single residence. (Utility-scale wind turbines have towers that are about 164 feet tall or higher, according to the American Wind Energy Association's Web site.)
For some, the idea of a series of massive turbines silhouetted against the horizon is the epitome of green energy overstepping its purpose. But others argue that the alternative to wind energy is the continued reliance upon mountaintop-removal coal, of which North Carolina is the No. 1 consumer.
Austin Hall, a wind-energy advocate and organizer for the nonprofit Appalachian Voices, tells Xpress, "We, as North Carolinians, have a moral imperative to develop our own resources.
"Our neighbors … in West Virginia are suffering unbelievable circumstances because of our energy consumption," Hall continues. "It's just very hard for me to hear the issue of the viewshed argument when I have seen a 10,000-acre strip mine, and I've seen valleys filled in with mining waste, and I've seen poisoned well water, and damage from blasting at people's homes, and kids who are sick from drinking poisoned water. … By banning wind energy, we're effectively saying, 'It's OK to destroy the mountains of West Virginia, just don't put a windmill on top of mine.'"
But for Cynthia Wadsworth — founder of the Mountain Ridge Protection Act Alliance — the possible encroachment of industry into her beloved mountains is problematic at best. Commercial wind-development causes significant damage in environmentally sensitive places — a side effect that may not be worth the energy produced, she says.
"It's not uncommon for [contractors] to blast through the topographical features on mountain ridges to provide a clear, level place for the turbines," Wadsworth says. "Clearing wide access corridors — 50 to 100 feet wide — for miles along the crests of forested mountain ridges is necessary for the cranes and trucks needed to erect these 40-story, wind skyscrapers … The concrete base needed to support just one of these massive structures may require 20 truckloads of cement. Substations and miles of transmission lines are also necessary. The resulting forest fragmentation has a negative effect on many animal species. Does this sound green?"
But Hall counters that by carefully locating turbines — "those places that we consider to be off-limits to wind-energy development: places like public land, fragile ecosystems, spruce forests, and [other] environmentally sensitive areas" — it's possible to develop about 750 megawatts of wind-energy potential. That's nearly equal to what the proposed addition to Duke Energy's Cliffside coal-fired plant in Rutherford County will produce, he explains. "Essentially, we could take the need for [that new] coal-fired power plant off the table if we developed just a fraction of our wind resource in the mountains of North Carolina," Hall argues.
"We're not talking about putting wind turbines on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Grandfather Mountain or in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Nobody wants that," says Avram Friedman, executive director and co-founder of the Canary Coalition, a clean-air-advocacy organization in Western North Carolina. "But," Friedman continues, "there are dozens of appropriate ridge tops on privately owned lands and on multiple-use public lands that already have roads and power lines crossing nearby. Some are dotted with cell towers, television- and radio-broadcasting antennas. There is no reason not to use this safe, clean, relatively inexpensive energy technology in these locations, especially if it's part of the solution to replacing coal, which is devastating the mountain landscape, wildlife, vegetation and human health."
But Tonya Bottomley, a supporter of the ridge law and founding member of Keepers of the Blue Ridge says the negative effects of wind energy far outweigh the positives. "There are many well-intentioned environmental groups that claim that commercial wind development will shut down coal plants and significantly reduce CO2 emissions. Where's the proof? With 100,000 wind turbines worldwide, there should be data to support those claims," Bottomley says in an e-mail response to Xpress.
"The wind industry has powerful lobbyists in Washington, D.C., placing intense pressure on our politicians. … If [they] are successful, hundreds of thousands of massive turbines will dominate our landscapes while doing virtually nothing to solve the problems of fossil-fuel dependency," Bottomley writes. "The tax breaks and subsidies make wind very profitable. I support alternative energy, but we need to be rational. Let's not destroy the environment in an effort to save it."
For politicians, it's a tough call. Rep. Cullie Tarleton of Blowing Rock says: "I believe wind energy has to be a part of our renewable-energy portfolio, but I also support the ridge law. [Those] are not mutually exclusive goals. There are many places in the west where community-scale turbines can be placed.
"In addition, one of the things all of us as consumers must realize and do a better job of is conserving energy just as we should practice effective water conservation measures. We simply consume too much and we need to do a much better job of conserving."
Until then, Hall, Friedman and other wind-energy advocates say allowing wind-energy projects in WNC is one way that we can begin to limit our reliance on coal, end mountaintop-removal mining, reduce CO2 emissions and, in the process, create jobs.
"Most people in this part of the state want to see the rapid development of renewable resources and a phasing out of coal," Friedman says. "The future of our economy is in making homes, businesses and industry more energy efficient as we develop wind, solar, geothermal, ocean-wave and tidal technologies."
Hall says more than 20 percent of our total energy could be generated from wind energy in the state. "Madison County is losing family farms rapidly," Hall points out. "We're losing land to other types of development when we could be keeping the land in the family, while responsibly developing a wind-energy resource and providing clean energy and conserving land."
But for Bottomley and Wadsworth, the extensive environmental impact necessary for wind development on ridges does not justify the amount of energy wind turbines can produce. They argue the ridge law should continue to protect North Carolina's highest ridges from industrial development.
The N.C. General Assembly will decide.
For more information about Senate Bill 1068 and the Mountain Ridge Protection Act, see www.ncga.state.nc.us.
Eric Crews is a freelance writer and video producer based in Western North Carolina.