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Wind energy: Not a lot of hot air

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In August 2007, North Carolina's legislature joined 29 states and the District of Columbia to enact a renewable energy mandate requiring utilities to produce a larger portion of their energy from renewable sources. The Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard (REPS), which requires that the state produce 12.5 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, was a cool breeze on a hot day for wind energy advocates.

But it has been anything but smooth sailing since. In the months after the REPS became law, oil spiked to $150 then sank under $40. Meanwhile, concerns about the veracity and pace of global warming have intensified, and the economy is in free-fall, leaving record numbers unemployed.

Sixty-percent of North Carolina's electricity comes from coal and half of that from mountain top removal. Despite a rash of industry-funded TV ads assuring us "clean coal" is on the way, the year-ended with a Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash sludge disaster near Knoxville that some analysts report is 50 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill. A second spill of coal residue in Alabama in early January further strengthened the position of environmentalists who counter, "There is no such thing as 'clean coal'."

What new possibilities exist for addressing these converging environmental, economic and social dilemmas? North Carolina has great potential to green its economy with locally based renewable energy. State taxpayers spend approximately $20 billion annually on fossil fuel imports, according to Gov. Bev Perdue's office. That's a big leak to plug and a big opportunity.

Despite the "drill baby drill" (or "drill here, drill now") chorus, wind is one of our state's greatest untapped resources. Wind potential in areas of the North Carolina Appalachian Mountains, and in portions of our coast, ranks among the highest in the southeastern United States. Although initial controversies over large turbines have held up adoption of wind, community-scale wind energy is increasingly seen as a safe and affordable addition to centralized generation. Here's how the story has unfolded to date.

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Recent proposals to harness the wind, both in mountain areas and on the coast, stirred opposition. In 2006, Richard and Tommy Calhoun, Ashe County farmers, filed an application with the N.C. Utilities Commission for a Certificate of Public Necessity and Convenience for their proposed 50-megawatt wind project in Ashe County. Their pioneering project did not survive the permitting process. Down east in Carteret County, Dianna and Nelson Paul hit similar snags. They secured a conditional permit from the utilities commission, only to find local authorities enacting aggressive barriers.

Wind projects in the mountains must deal with the 1983 "Ridge Law," which regulates construction on ridges. Opposition to wind in the mountains is rooted in viewshed protection, which is articulated by environmentalists as the intrinsic value of nature, and by the real estate industry's intent to commercialize the views. Opponents of wind energy claim the law bans windmills, even though they are specifically exempted in the statute.

Watauga County was host to the world's largest wind turbine at that time, undercutting the validity of the anti-wind claim, and in the summer of 2006, it became the first in the state to pass an ordinance allowing wind energy. Neighboring Ashe County drafted a more restrictive ordinance in reaction to the Calhoun proposal still pending at that time. Blowing Rock followed with a ban on all windmills within the town limit. Currituck County passed its own restrictive ordinance in 2008.

Unlike the Great Plains, N.C.'s mountains and shores are contested landscapes. Marketers use "pristine nature" imagery to sell vacation homes and tourist destinations. Giant billboards dot the roadway to Boone pointing this out without a hint of contradiction. In contrast, locals prioritize livelihoods and property rights and tend to favor the right to produce wind power on their land. There is an unmistakable divide, as one local testified at the Ashe public hearing: "I'd rather see the windmills than any more vacation homes on the mountainsides."

Resistance is typically dismissed as NIMBY (not in my backyard), but a more nuanced interpretation of the local opposition points to a conditional acceptance of wind power based on scale, local control and benefit. Current policy incentives benefit companies with large tax liabilities and may, as a result, actually encourage industrial-scale projects. Large corporate tax appetites require large capital projects to reap the incentives.

Here is where Europe, which pioneered the concept of community-scale wind, provides models that deserve a closer look. Germany, for example, offsets the industrial advantage with a "feed-in tariff" that levels the field, allowing farmers, schools and villages to benefit. With local tax bases drying up and poverty-related utility disconnects on the rise, we have ample reason to act.

Minnesota has gained a reputation for innovation in the U.S., but their model, based on large turbines on sweeping landholdings in the Great Plains, does not work well here. So the Boone-based Appalachian Institute for Renewable Energy (AIRE) is developing a new model for community-scale wind projects in the Appalachians.

In addition, to make wind viable, the permitting gauntlet has to be streamlined. In Ohio, this meant taking decision-making away from local authorities, a move that is contradictory to community involvement. Gov. Perdue's office agrees: "Communities need to have a role in planning their energy future and tapping into energy efficiency and renewable technologies." The North Carolina Wind Working Group recently completed a model local wind ordinance that categorized small, medium and large-scale projects each with due diligence consistent with its likely impacts. Drilling our way to energy self-reliance is a false choice, but in-state production of wind power could make N.C. more energy self-reliant. Importing energy, even in the form of renewable energy credits, reinforces passive consumerism. Amid the steady destruction of mountain top removal, sludge dam disasters and deteriorating climate, it is ironic that wind power opponents dismiss this renewable power source using adjectives like "dangerous" and "unsightly." Community wind could help us get past this irony, democratize energy and renew our economy, but only if we let the turbines spin, baby spin.

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