NASHVILLE – U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a longtime critic of wind-powered electricity generation, is praising a state House vote to place a partial moratorium on such developments in Tennessee while a special committee of state lawmakers drafts rules for regulating them.
“This will give Tennesseans the opportunity to evaluate whether we want our landscape littered with wind turbines that are over two times as tall as the skyboxes at the University of Tennessee football stadium and produce only a small amount of unreliable electricity,” Alexander said in an emailed statement.
The bill approved by the House 85-3 on Thursday (HB1021) amounts to a compromise that sponsor Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said had been agreed upon by “all stakeholders.” That includes Apex Energy Solutions, which has stirred considerable controversy in Cumberland County with plans to spend $130 million erecting at least 20 electricity-generating turbines on a mountain near Crab Orchard.
As approved by the House, after a somewhat convoluted history in committees, the bill creates a task force of six legislators – three from the House, three from the Senate with speakers of the two chambers appointing the members later – to draft legislation that would establish regulations for state oversight of wind-powered facilities in Tennessee, completing its work by Jan. 1, 2018.
Tennessee is now one of just four states in the nation with no state regulation of wind power generation, leaving the matter solely to federal regulations. Sexton at one point proposed putting state oversight into place immediately, but that idea was killed in committee.
The compromise plan -- approved unanimously in a committee of the Senate and awaiting a floor vote in that chamber with virtually certain approval -- imposes a general moratorium on construction of wind-powered facilities until July 1, 2018. But the moratorium doesn’t cover preliminary work, such as preparing environmental impact statements required by federal law. Apex hopes to have its Cumberland County facility operational in 2019.
The deal also exempts counties that have approved local regulations authorizing a project prior to July 1, 2017. The Cumberland County Commission has twice rejected proposals to impose local regulations – pushed in a petition signed by more than 2,000 county residents – while approving a resolution calling on the Legislature to establish state regulations. The bill thus gives the Cumberland County Commission an opportunity to enact local regulations allowing Apex to proceed beyond preliminary work if it acts before July 1.
Alexander and U.S. Rep. Diane Black, whose congressional district includes Cumberland County and who is considering seeking election as governor next year, have declared their opposition to the Cumberland County project previously. Several environmental groups have also criticized the project.
The senator has repeatedly and regularly opposed wind power operations at the federal level, notably including opposition to tax breaks for the industry that are now in place, and delivered a Senate floor speech in March denouncing plans for building a transmission line to bring wind-generated electricity from Oklahoma to Memphis.
While publicly tying his congressional perspective on wind power to state-level controversy on the subject, Alexander has avoided taking a position on another issue that would seem to tie his Washington efforts to a pending matter in the General Assembly: A proposal to disinter the bodies of President James K. Polk and his wife from their current resting place at a tomb on the state Capitol grounds in Nashville and relocate them to the James K. Polk Home in Columbia. Alexander is pushing in Washington to make the Columbia home part of the National Park Service system. Proponents of the relocation say the moves at the state and federal level go hand-in-glove toward making Columbia a tourist destination.
The state Senate has approved a resolution (SJR141) authorizing relocation of the bodies – one of several steps required before the move could actually occur – but it appears the proposal may be stalled in the House until next year.