The Answer is Blowing in Our Mountains

Guest Blog | November 23, 2009 | Climate Change, Energy Policy
State Rep. Phil Frye responds to audience questions. Rep. Frye is currently supporting wind energy in WNC and is very interested to see a pilot project developed in his district to show the potential benefits to the local and state economy.

The dust has settled after a last minute ban on mountain wind energy in North Carolina was inserted into an otherwise responsibly written state-wide wind permitting bill by the North Carolina Senate.  We believe now is the time to have a constructive and thoughtful dialogue about these issues to ensure that we protect local rights to choose whether or not to develop clean energy in their communities.

Over the past week, hundreds of people ranging from interested citizens to representatives, environmental groups, and academic institutions to the agriculture community, reengaged in the wind energy discussion in western North Carolina through two public wind forums held in Asheville, NC and Spruce Pine, NC.  SACE staff participated in the second half of a radio show hosted by Our Southern Community (listen to Radio Part 1 and Radio Part 2) after the wind forum in Asheville.

SACE and WNCA also took time recently to meet with the Asheville Citizen-Times editorial board to discuss wind energy in the mountains of North Carolina (watch the video here).  In each of these venues we saw repeatedly that wind power triggers very emotional responses from residents of the mountains and thus, we feel, it is critically important that the public get the facts about wind energy and in particular, the facts about how we can protect our mountain resources as we pursue this much needed source of clean energy.

An Appalachian State University study that looks at the highest quality wind sites (class 4 and above) that are near existing transmission lines and existing roads (to ensure that less development would be necessary), also takes into consideration the exclusion of critical natural areas. By excluding 98% of our mountain lands that are:
• at least 1 mile from the Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail,
• Federal lands (ie. Great Smoky Mountains National Park and National Forests),
• State lands,
• Important Bird Areas,
• Spruce fir habitats (like Mt. Mitchell State Park),
• and significant natural heritage areas,
they found that there is still 787 MW of feasible wind power in western North Carolina.  These potential projects represent approximately three dozen wind sites across the 24 county region on only 2% of mountain lands.

Here is what this study’s findings mean:

Wind energy creates jobs. There are 85,000 people currently employed in the wind industry in the United States.  These are

NC Senator Joe Sam Queen addresses the Spruc Pine audience. Sen. Queen currently opposes mountain wind energy and stated to a SACE staff person that the wind potential in WNC is

healthy, sustainable, long-term jobs.  We are puzzled as to why several NC state Senators are telling the wind industry to keep their jobs in the Midwest when we need them here at home. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s economic development model, 787 MW of wind energy is equivalent to 350 well-paid, long-term (20+ year) jobs.  In rural western North Carolina, these numbers mean 350 families raising their kids, participating in building local economies, and investing their time, money, and lives into our mountains.

Wind energy creates local economic benefits.
All of us from western North Carolina are painfully aware of the struggles to pay bills for schools and hire teachers in our most rural counties. The best wind energy resources happen to exist in these rural counties and represent an estimated $8.1 million in local economic benefits from tax payments alone that will come from the buildout of a small portion western North Carolina’s overall wind energy potential.

Wind energy helps local citizens keep their lands. Many local farmers, be they apple growers or Christmas tree farmers, are facing critical times in this economy.  Big developers want to buy their land out from under them at prices that are hard to refuse.  But most of these farmers would prefer to keep the beautiful mountain lands that have been in their families for generations and not sell them out to be ravaged by housing developments. Wind energy development actually provides the best of both worlds and offers a truly unique opportunity for local landowners.

windturbineonfarmHere’s how it works:  When wind turbines are built, the company leases land as a way of leasing the rights to the wind that blows across these lands. 787 MW of wind energy represents between $2 million and $3.5 million in annual lease payments each year.  And since wind projects only require about 2% of the actual land leased to build the turbines, this means that the rest of the land may continue being used to farm, hunt, fish, or grow our prized crops  or Christmas trees. If this isn’t a win-win situation, we don’t know what is!

Wind energy is good for the environment. Wind energy produces no pollution and uses no water. The National Academy of Sciences recently released a report noting that wind energy has the least amount of environmental impact of all the generation sources. With this said, wind energy projects should still be required to conduct site specific studies demonstrating the projects will have little to no significant adverse impacts to biological species, ecological systems, treasured viewsheds, avian and bat populations, and must address noise concerns.

Wind energy is in fact an opportunity to our mountain communities, not a threat. By tightening up some of the language in the original bill Senate Bill 1068, (which was written by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) after months of compromising between environmental groups, state agencies, non-profits, the wind industry, and academic experts), SACE is confident wind energy can be introduced in a way that provides significant amounts of clean electricity to the region, creates jobs, and protects our environment, our North Carolina heritage, and our lands.

Finally, wind energy is geographically competitive. States such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia are currently reaping the benefits of flourishing wind energy markets. Project developers look for the markets where the rules are certain. And, across the country, where wind is being developed, manufacturing is following. This is perhaps the real baby the North Carolina Senators are throwing out with the bath water. The state of North Carolina has a retired manufacturing sector that is ripe for a renaissance. You don’t need to dig to find the scars left by the textile industry’s abandonment of the North Carolina economy.

The wind that blows over our mountaintops contains dollars and jobs for the entire state to harness today, we must demand our leaders reach up and grab it.

This blog post was written by Brandon Blevins (brandon[at] and Ulla Reeves (ulla[at]

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