OLIVER SPRINGS, TENN. - When Martha Walls gives tours of her town’s small museum, she points to framed photographs of coal-blackened faces next to those of 400-foot wind turbines that stand on a reclaimed strip mine just outside town.
The Southeast’s first commercial wind farm was built here on Windrock Mountain on the site of an old coal mine after people in North Carolina fought a proposal to place it within view of Watauga County.
In Oliver Springs, the new environmentally-friendly energy came without a fuss.
“I don’t hear anybody complain about our windmills, and I don’t know why anybody would,” Walls said.
But in North Carolina, where a proposal to build a wind farm in Ashe County has run up against opposition from longtime residents and newcomers, the road to renewable energy is not so certain.
As state officials consider how to make North Carolina less reliant on fossil fuels and foreign oil, wind power plays a major role as a source of cleaner, renewable energy.
But even clean energy has its opponents - especially when it’s produced by giant turbines that some people believe will destroy North Carolina’s beloved mountain scenery.
The wind farm here in Tennessee coal-country offers a preview of what could come to the North Carolina mountains.
The Windrock Mountain farm is helping to set legal precedent in North Carolina, as the fallout from the 2002 fight shapes how North Carolina proceeds with a policy to develop alternate sources of energy. If wind farms are banned from the mountains, North Carolina could look to the coast instead.
Today, Ashe County commissioners have scheduled a second reading for a wind-energy ordinance requiring setbacks that could block a proposed wind farm in Creston.
Meanwhile, the N.C. Utilities Commission delayed granting a permit last week to the developers of the Ashe County wind farm as it tries to decide whether turbines are allowed under a state law that protects mountain views.
For opponents, the decision is a simple one. They support alternate-energy, but not at the expense of their beautiful mountain views.
“Don’t save the environment by destroying it,” said Jeff Martin of Lansing. “We are for alternative energy sources, but we want to make sure they’re the right kind.”
Avoided a PR battle
Stone Mountain, Tenn., just across the state line from Watauga County, was the leading site in 2002 for a wind farm being developed by a private company under a contract to sell the power to the Tennessee Valley Authority. It’s windier there than at Windrock Mountain, where the TVA owned three smaller turbines put up in 2000 as a pilot project.
But when people from Watauga County packed a public hearing in protest, the TVA decided not to build at Stone Mountain and instead built the wind farm just outside of Oliver Springs.
“We just didn’t want to fight the bad PR,” said Rick Carson, TVA’s renewable operations manager.
Roy Cooper, the N.C. attorney general, added his voice to the protest after Tennessee officials said that the North Carolina Ridge Law allowed such turbines. Cooper wrote back, arguing that the TVA had misinterpreted the North Carolina law.
The TVA moved the Tennessee wind farm to Oliver Springs, but Cooper’s opinion remains as the argument cited by opponents to the Ashe County proposal.
The giant turbines, 18 in all, stand on a ridge on Windrock Mountain, catching the wind at 3,300 feet. From Oak Ridge, about five miles away, and 2,300 feet lower, only two or three turbines are visible.
Oliver Springs is tucked so close against Windrock Mountain that the turbines are barely visible from most of the town. Most of the turbines are on the opposite side of a ridge, where the slope falls away to vast timberlands.
Up close, the turbines seem almost to dance as their blades slowly swoop at a constant 16 revolutions per minute.
Carson stands directly beneath one of the turbines and speaks in a normal voice easily heard over the soft, rhythmic whoomph, whoomph, whoomph. Several hundred feet away the wind drowns out their sound.
The blades flex as they spin, bending backwards against the wind. They appear to turn slowly, but the outer tip is traveling about 200 mph.
Carson said he believes that most of the objections critics make come down to a question of taste.
“If you don’t like to look at them,” he said, “there’s not much you can do about that.”
At three public hearings in Ashe County in recent weeks, opponents of the proposed wind farm often said that they support alternate energy-sources but don’t believe that this particular project is right for their corner of the mountains.
Ron and Suzanne Joyner, who grow heirloom variety apples and tend honeybee hives on their farm near Big Horse Creek, have used a smaller windmill and solar power to live completely off the electric grid for the past 10 years.
At one of the hearings, Ron Joyner said he favors environmentally friendly living, but it’s the scale of this industrial-size project that makes it too big for the area.
A year ago, the General Assembly’s Environmental Review Commission asked the N.C. Utilities Commission to review the costs and benefits of requiring retail sellers of electricity to offer some minimum level of electricity from renewable resources such as wind, solar and water.
Congress has considered establishing a federal standard, but so far all the standards have been adopted at state or local levels. The two most ambitious are in California, which expects to get 20 percent of its retail electricity from renewable sources by 2010, and in New York, which expects 24 percent by 2013.
Standards in the Southeast
No Southeast states have adopted the goals, but speculation about what could happen in North Carolina means that power companies are open to talks with developers who are proposing alternative-energy sources.
In response to the General Assembly, the N.C. Utilities Commission hired consultants to prepare an analysis, which was finished in December.
The study indicated that North Carolina will be able to meet 5 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources. Wind energy makes up nearly half of the state’s potential renewal energy. Meeting 10 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources would require large hydroelectric systems and wind farms - in the mountains and off the coast.
Renewable energy is also expensive. For instance, the TVA’s cost is about three cents to generate a kilowatt-hour from a coal-fired plant. The cost for the same amount of power from a wind farm is between four and six cents. A federal subsidy helps pay the added cost. For consumers the added cost of clean energy can run as much as $10 a month.
In North Carolina, the debate continues about whether wind farms are legal in the mountains. The N.C. Utilities Commission heard testimony last week but decided to delay its decision until August.
The commission’s public staff favors the project in Ashe County, but only if it’s legal under North Carolina’s Ridge Law. And so far, the only guidance on that question comes from the letter Cooper wrote the TVA in 2002 about the site within view of Watauga County.
Ridge Law bans tall structures
The state’s Ridge Law bans tall buildings and structures from protected mountain ridges but exempts various structures - among them windmills.
Cooper wrote then that the windmill exemptions applied to small windmills typically found on farms - not the 400-foot-tall turbines planned by the TVA. He said then that the Stone Mountain proposal would be prohibited in North Carolina.
Cooper declined to comment last week on the Ashe County site, but he said that his staff may prepare an opinion for the Utilities Commission.
The developers of the proposed Ashe County wind farm, who include Richard Calhoun, a former Ashe County commissioner, say they believe that the Ridge Law is on their side. In their view a wind turbine is nothing more than a large windmill.
Ashe County isn’t waiting on the Utilities Commission. County commissioners are trying to block the proposed turbines with a land-use regulation that would require that a commercial wind farm be at least 1,700 feet from a home or business.
Calhoun’s attorney, Andrea Capua, said she does not know whether the new ordinance would effectively block Calhoun’s proposal. He has picked a general area, but not named a specific site for each turbine. In his application, he said that a yearlong wind study would help determine the sites.
Town loves its windmills
If Oliver Springs, with its busy railroad track, turn-of-the-20th-century brick buildings and Victorian-style homes looks like a movie version of a coal town, it is. It served as Coalwood, W.Va., for filming of the 2005 movie October Sky, about Homer Hickam Jr.’s dream of escaping the coal mines by building rockets and joining NASA.
Windrock Mountain was once full of coal, with a deep mine that ran three miles under the mountain to come out the other side. A commissary up top ran for 60 years until closing in 1963 when the deep mine closed.
After that, the mountain was strip-mined. There’s an active strip-mine still being worked on its flank.
Oliver Springs isn’t a resort town as it was when people traveled hundreds of miles to dip in the healing mineral waters. They stayed at the 1895 Oliver Springs Hotel and visited the spring-house with its eight different kinds of water.
But Ashe County hopes to build its economy around tourism, second-homes and mountain views. Calhoun, the developer and former county commissioner, knows that.
“I’m convinced we can do this project without destruction of our beloved mountain,” he said during the hearings.
Some supporters of the wind farm said that it could even be a tourist draw. Opponents scoffed at that and said they fear that it’s the first of many wind farms that could turn their beautiful corner of the state into an industrial site.
“It will ruin our beautiful county,” said Cheryl Roberts, who lives near Creston.
The folks in Oliver Springs didn’t build the wind farm, but in this Tennessee town that coal built, harnessing the wind has proven a hit.
Some in town like the turbines so much that the town sign displays three of them. People can buy $15 permits to drive up the mountain to see them.
One day last week, Walls, who gives tours of the town museum, and Kathleen Clark, a library volunteer, said that they couldn’t understand why anyone would object to the turbines.
“I think they’re just awesome, and I love them and the swooshing sound of them,” Clark said.
Walls, the daughter of a mine worker, still remembers the days that she could hardly get through town for all the trucks hauling coal out of Windrock Mountain. She said that careful siting could make turbines accepted elsewhere.
“To me, the way to do it is to pick and choose the areas where you put it,” she said.