The Earth is Flat and Alabama Has No Wind (a study in misreading maps)

Guest Blog | August 28, 2013 | Energy Policy, Wind
Contrary to what this map shows, the Earth is not flat.

Wind power could provide new jobs and income for northeastern Alabama.

Yet, a small number of people have begun a misinformation campaign to ban wind energy in Alabama and prevent millions of dollars of investment in the state.

The misinformers’ biggest argument is that there’s “No Wind” in Alabama. To “prove” their point, they use a coarse map that is not accurate enough to identify ridge top wind resources. But Pioneer Green, the developer of the Shinbone and Noccalula projects, doesn’t trust this map – and for good reason. 

The map used by the wind opponents has an image spatial resolution of 2.5 kilometers. Basically, everything within a two and a half kilometer square area is homogenized into a single pixel. So, things like mountain ridge tops appear much shorter and much flatter than reality – or disappear completely.

Try it for yourself at the American Museum of Natural History website. (Note: This is not a map of Alabama and is only for illustrative purposes)

American Museum of Natural History

The map they’re referring to  (the most recent wind map from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, NREL) isn’t accurate enough to be the sole determining factor on whether or not a location is suitable for a wind farm. NREL itself states, “The average wind speeds indicated on this map are model-derived estimates that may not represent the true wind resource at any given location. …Expert advice or detailed wind resource assessments should be sought when estimating energy production potential.” In order to get accurate measurement, a meteorological tower or anemometer (a wind measurement device) needs to be installed to collect wind measurements at 60 meters or higher for one to two years.

The site in northeast Alabama has been under investigation since 2002 and wind farm developers have collected approximately four years of actual wind speed data (not map model estimates). Their real-life measurements show that some sites in northeast Alabama are indeed good places for wind farms. If a wind farm developer doubted the success of their project, why would they stick around?

Further conflating the matter, while wind opponents tout the three-year old maps, they conveniently ignore the corresponding analysis by the National Renewable Energy Lab accompanying the maps. The analysis that the wind opponents are all too willing to ignore estimates that 567 megawatts of wind farm capacity could be built in Alabama – or five times more than what is proposed at Shinbone and Noccalula. However, the analysis doesn’t use the most up-to-date turbine technology that has been developed since the report’s release; it’s likely that substantially more wind resources are economically developable in Alabama with updated technology.

Sailors at the Weiss Lake Regatta. Photo: Tatem Summer

And come to find out, this weekend was the Annual Weiss Lake Regatta, hosted by the Rome Sailing Club. They always have the sailboat race the third weekend in August. The club moved to Weiss Lake because of “larger water and better conditions” in 1980. So while the winds of Weiss Lake are good enough for a sailing regatta, the lake is about 1,000 feet below the ridge top where the Shinbone and Noccalula wind farms are proposed. Higher altitudes result in better wind speeds.

Simply put, Alabama does have enough wind to support wind farms and that’s why several wind farms have been proposed for the state. And that’s good news for Alabama. It’s not every day that an 18 megawatt and 80 megawatt wind farm gets proposed here in the South; but according to studies by Jacksonville State University, the Shinbone and Noccalula wind projects could create about 350-490 full time equivalent construction jobs, and about 36 to 53 permanent jobs for the projects’ expected 30 year lifespans. Additionally, the projects could pay from $27 million up to $43 million in combined new tax revenues over the projects’ lifespans for Cherokee and Etowah counties, respectively. Incidentally, in these two counties, the poverty rate exceeds the national average – nearly 1 in 5 people is living in poverty. No wonder that according to an informal online poll, some 68% of readers are OK with wind energy companies putting wind farms in Alabama.

What’s next for these wind farms to get built? The Shinbone wind farm has a signed contract with the Tennessee Valley Authority to provide power, but will still undergo rigorous environmental review this fall. Noccalula still needs to find a purchaser for its power. For all the benefits that wind power provides, northeast Alabama is in a fortunate position to be able to host these great assets.

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