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Windy debate on state gems

The debate has its roots in a condominium project that popped up on a mountain ridge in the 1980s. There were no mountain area zoning laws to prevent it, and when the Sugar Top project emerged to stick out like a sore thumb, the General Assembly quickly acted. It adopted the Ridge Law, intended to stop the erection of excessively tall structures atop mountain ridges in altitudes of 3,000 feet or greater.

RALEIGH -- When Martin Nesbitt got up in the Senate the other day to argue against allowing industrial wind farms atop mountain ridges, I flashed back to a day in Congress in the 1970s when other North Carolinians were arguing for preserving the beauty of the mountains.

I think it was then-Rep. Jim Martin, R-N.C. who got to the crux of the matter. He argued that the House should allow debate on a bill to stop a hydroelectric project on the New River in Western N.C. and Southwestern Virginia by putting the river in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers system. Don't flood one of the oldest rivers in the world and ruin its dramatic run through Ashe and Alleghany counties. Don't, he warned, make the mistake of trading our birthright for "a mess of wattage."

Those attuned to Bible stories got the allusion to Esau's hasty trade for a bowl of pottage. In time the state saved the New River from a hydro plant that would have produced a mess of wattage but destroyed one of Eastern America's most gorgeous rivers.

High-powered debate

But just as that 1970s-era fight pitted Western N.C. residents against advocates of cheap and clean electric power and split some environmentalists, so is the debate over Senate... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

RALEIGH -- When Martin Nesbitt got up in the Senate the other day to argue against allowing industrial wind farms atop mountain ridges, I flashed back to a day in Congress in the 1970s when other North Carolinians were arguing for preserving the beauty of the mountains.

I think it was then-Rep. Jim Martin, R-N.C. who got to the crux of the matter. He argued that the House should allow debate on a bill to stop a hydroelectric project on the New River in Western N.C. and Southwestern Virginia by putting the river in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers system. Don't flood one of the oldest rivers in the world and ruin its dramatic run through Ashe and Alleghany counties. Don't, he warned, make the mistake of trading our birthright for "a mess of wattage."

Those attuned to Bible stories got the allusion to Esau's hasty trade for a bowl of pottage. In time the state saved the New River from a hydro plant that would have produced a mess of wattage but destroyed one of Eastern America's most gorgeous rivers.

High-powered debate

But just as that 1970s-era fight pitted Western N.C. residents against advocates of cheap and clean electric power and split some environmentalists, so is the debate over Senate Bill 1068 driving a wedge between traditional conservationists and environmentalists who want to give up some mountain slopes for sustainable wind energy. And like the debate over the hydro plant, this debate carries some high-voltage rhetoric.

Wind turbines are "visual pollution" that would ruin "the crown jewels" of the state, says Nesbitt.

This is evolving technology, says another mountain lawmaker, Sen. Steve Goss, D-Watauga. "Don't kill it before it starts."

The debate has its roots in a condominium project that popped up on a mountain ridge in the 1980s. There were no mountain area zoning laws to prevent it, and when the Sugar Top project emerged to stick out like a sore thumb, the General Assembly quickly acted. It adopted the Ridge Law, intended to stop the erection of excessively tall structures atop mountain ridges in altitudes of 3,000 feet or greater. It exempted such things as windmills and other staples of the rural landscape, and gave counties a year to opt out of the law if they chose. None did. It's a good law that has helped maintain mountain vistas North Carolinians have loved for hundreds of years.

What's a windmill?

A few years ago Attorney General Roy Cooper's office issued an opinion that the Ridge Law's exemption of windmills applied to what we used to think of as farmstead windmills helping pump water. It did not exempt from the law the new generation of wind turbines, some of them hundreds of feet tall from their base to the tips of their rotors. I thought that interpretation was appropriate, too - in line with what the House and Senate intended when they adopted the law preserving the mountain crests.

But the state has also adopted a law requiring that increasing amounts of power be generated by means other than burning carbon. Wind power is one way, and in this state there are two general locations where the wind blows a lot: the coastal area, where Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight envisions a series of wind farms with hundreds of tall wind turbines,, and a much smaller area on mountain ridge tops where there's enough wind to generate power.

Some state officials think the coast may be the best place for large wind farms. Windmills would be less visible offshore, and perhaps not as objectionable visually in the sounds. And there's room to put many more wind turbines on the coast than the mountains. "It does no good to put 10 up. You have to put up hundreds," says Basnight, who has talked with Duke Energy about its plans for a pilot project off Hatteras or Oregon Inlet.

Stirring passions

Putting wind turbines on mountain ridges has stirred passions - and led to the current debate over interpreting the Ridge Law.

There are windmill issues other than size, of course: reliability of wind, the likely need for other baseline plants when the wind doesn't blow, noise and even the flicker of shadows caused by blades turning while the sun shines. Proponents of wind energy argue that new developments in wind energy - and even in the design of wind turbines - are likely to resolve these problems.

Here's the crux. Are there places on or near ridge tops where wind turbines can get enough wind to operate without ruining the magnificent vistas God gave us? Goss thinks so, and wants to find a way to amend the legislation to allow wind farms without adversely affecting the mountain views that have inspired millions of Americans for generations.

Nesbitt is less confident. The Ridge Law has been a good way to prevent the conversion of our mountaintops to anthills, he says. He notes the bill would allow small windmills up to 100 feet tall for individual homes. He's even willing to talk about allowing wind turbines near the crests of mountain ridges. But he's a lifelong mountain man - "and if there is such a mountain, I don't know about it."

Maybe they'll find a way to allow wind farms up there without killing what we cherish most. But they have to get this one right. Otherwise, they risk destroying the heritage of every North Carolinian.


Source: http://www.charlotteobserve...

JUL 19 2009
https://www.windaction.org/posts/21290-windy-debate-on-state-gems
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