Powering up?

Modern wind turbines definitely have their place, but take care with western North Carolina's scenic ridges.

July 14, 2009 

The General Assembly is trying to craft regulations for building electricity-generating wind turbines in North Carolina, and the legislative winds have been blowing hot and cold. No wonder -- the tall wind power towers with their three-bladed turbines would stand out in any landscape, particularly so atop western North Carolina's scenic ridges. When a proposal surfaced two years ago for a series of wind turbines on an Ashe County ridge top, opposition was immediate and effective.

Still, modern wind turbines have proven their usefulness in generating clean electric power and, in many locations, they're an appealing sight. The trick will be to protect the tourist-attracting natural resource of the Appalachian ridges without ruling out wind power in a naturally windy region.

Last week, state senators swayed back and forth on a bill setting the ground rules for getting permits to develop utility-scale wind both in the western mountains and along the coast. It's the mountain ridge-top issue, however, that's at the heart of the controversy.

Language that would have severely restricted -- more likely, killed -- prospects for big wind turbines on mountain ridges was dropped from the bill that's been before the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. The Senate Finance Committee is slated to take up the issue today, and the proposed ban on commercial-scale, ridge-top wind turbines may resurface there.

Ridge-top development has an unsavory history in this state. The poster child for unfortunate construction is the 10-story Sugar Top condominium building, all too visible from Grandfather Mountain in Avery County. Sugar Top inspired North Carolina's Mountain Ridge Protection Act, enacted in 1983. A legal opinion from the state Attorney General's office, issued in 2002, sensibly holds that commercial-scale wind turbines fall under the act's provisions. That's a significant obstacle. In good part, the most controversial aspect of the current legislative process is about codifying that view into law -- or not.

Here, legislators have to balance, on thin turbine blades, the public interest in pristine scenery with the clean energy potential the mountain winds represent. It would be easier to side with wind power if it directly replaced the energy obtained by burning Appalachian coal in "baseline" power plants, but because the wind is fickle, it does not. Yet wind power is rightly an alternate-energy success story, despite recent setbacks due to the recession and falling prices for a rival generating source, natural gas.

Northern Europe brims with wind turbines, many just offshore, and in this country the southwestern plains have emerged as a hotbed of wind energy -- in Texas, they're even using them to supply power for oil and gas operations. North Carolina's coast has strong wind power potential, and there the permit-granting process should presume that turbines do have a place, with appropriate safeguards against ill-conceived, overly obtrusive projects.

At the other end of the state stand the Appalachian ridges, row upon row. They're a national scenic treasure. While legislators should allow wind power to develop in western North Carolina, the place to take a stand for clean energy is not on prominent ridge tops.

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