The winds are blowing up a storm over the future of wind turbines in the mountains.
A rapidly changing bill to permit wind turbines in the mountains was altered by several co-sponsors to now feature a ban on all wind turbines in western North Carolina. The bill is in committee today before going to a Senate vote.
The original bill introduced on March 31, co-sponsored by N.C. Sen. Steve Goss (D-Watauga), was designed to set up a permitting process for wind turbines and to specifically exclude them from Ridge Law provisions. However, the bill was altered by several senators on its way to the Senate Agricultural, Environment and Natural Resources Committee to effectively ban all wind turbines on ridge tops.
Dennis Scanlin, who oversees wind research at Appalachian State University, said the proposal threatened not only future wind-energy development but a project installed two weeks ago on the university campus that is one of the largest wind turbines in the Southeast.
"Their stated intent is to ban all wind development in western North Carolina," Scanlin said. "I think we need to control and regulate all technology. I think the original bill protected against inappropriate development. I haven't seen anyone opposed to small wind turbines. I don't think these senators are in touch with their constituents."
Goss said he was caught off guard by the changes, as the original version of the bill introduced on March 31 made minor changes to the Ridge Law. He said he favored county governments developing their own regulations, as has been done in Watauga and Ashe counties.
"If this bill as proposed over the weekend is adopted, we will have to close down our Beech Mountain research facility, as far as I know," Scanlin said, adding it would also threaten research funds included in federal stimulus package. "Western North Carolina has some of the best wind resources in the United States and we could definitely generate some of our energy from it."
One last-minute change Tuesday morning appears to exempt research-related wind turbines on university campuses. Goss is concerned about the loss of federal funding if the ban is instituted.
Goss also questioned the timing of the proposal, as the legislature is exhausted from tough budget deliberations. "I have some real issues with the timing of the bill right now," Goss said. "We have people with strong views on either end of the spectrum. I certainly don't want to see it banned altogether. There's an answer in between, and I'll be asking a lot of questions.
"I certainly want to protect the mountains, but we can't have it both ways. We need to pursue alternative forms of energy. We saw what happened when we turned a blind eye to the energy crisis of the 1970's."
Goss said the state should regulate how technology is used, but said counties should have influence on how their own communities look. "There are some strong voices wanting to prohibit wind energy," he said.
Coastal wind turbines are also getting scrutiny under the bill, and Goss acknowledged there were still a number of hurdles in making wind energy a significant factor in the state's energy supply, including the transmission infrastructure. He said that was where research became important. "I'm impressed with what ASU is doing," he said.
Scanlin said he worried about the lack of notice on an important bill that was poised to rush toward a full legislative vote.
"I just learned about it on Friday," Scanlin said. "What was so underhanded about it was they secretly changed it from a bill permitting wind turbines to a bill banning them. It's definitely political. It's gotten very political.
"They didn't change the name of the bill but they basically tried to change it to eliminate wind energy in the mountains," he said. "Steve Goss is the only senator I've spoken to from western North carolina who is for responsible wind development."
ASU erected a $530,000 wind turbine last month as a research project. The 120-foot tower features blades that are 30 feet long and produces about enough energy to operate 15 average-sized homes. The turbine is visible from many areas of Boone at its location near the Broyhill Inn & Convention Center.