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HILLSVILLE — A wind energy workshop on Monday gave citizens an opportunity to vent about Carroll’s proposal to ban tall structures on ridge tops, a response by county officials to the possibility of a wind turbine farm being developed on Stoots Mountain.
An idea by EDP Renewables to study a wind farm caused the neighbors and other citizens some concerns, which were shared at several meetings with the Carroll Board of Supervisors.
The wind farm could have as many as 24 turbines that reach nearly 500 feet tall.
The supervisors directed county attorney Jim Cornwell to draft an ordinance to prohibit wind energy developments as a result.
In the end, the county officials at a December meeting also expressed doubts about the resulting proposal and fears that the language could chill other kinds of development.
Wishing to gather more information, the supervisors held a workshop Monday night, to which they invited James Madison University’s Jon Miles to present general information about wind energy; and Eldon Karr, who recommended county officials keep in mind certain health and safety issues relating to wind mills.
Miles, unable to make it in person, spoke over a cell phone that was amplified through the county board meeting room’s sound system.
“I guess this is the next best thing to live,” he joked.
Wind power is second only to natural gas in terms of cost competitiveness, Miles said. If you started from scratch to build a new power plant and produce electricity, wind power would be the second most cost-effective to bring online.
Wind energy doesn’t generate pollutants and has stable and predictable costs. A wind farm installs relatively quickly, doesn’t require any water and can be dismantled at the end of its life, the professor said.
Wind, though an intermittent resource, is predictable through the studies that precede such a development.
“While wind resources are not everywhere, Carroll County is one of a number of counties in this state that have good resources here and there, but they need to be chosen carefully,” Miles said.
The best wind resources can be found offshore, followed by some higher elevations in the mountains, he said.
Visual aids projected on the meeting room screen showed a wind resources map with colorful spots in different areas of Carroll. Some of the spots were up and down Interstate 77 and a place in the southwestern corner near Grayson, among others.
“Carroll is never going to be a major center of large commercial wind development of hundreds and hundreds of megawatts — it’s just not going to happen,” he said.
Still, some of these areas could probably generate “tens” of megawatts of energy through wind.
Miles’ presentation went on for approximately half an hour, and then board Chairman David Hutchins opened the meeting up for questions.
Supervisor Bob Martin posed several, including questions about the economics of wind mill development.
“Are these companies that are interested in building windmills — is it a standalone or is it because there are federal government subsidies that are also available to these companies to make it profitable on a very marginal wind operation in Carroll County,” Martin wondered.
“All the other energy sectors enjoy their own different kinds of tax credits,” Miles answered.
The position of the American Wind Energy Association is they don’t even want tax credits, but other kinds of power generations get the subsidies, Miles said. With the wind energy developers getting the tax credits, that levels the playing field a bit in their minds, the professor said.
He doubted if the absence of tax credits would totally deter those interested in wind farm developments.
With or without the credits, Carroll and other places have resources that at least merit study, Miles said.
“I’d have to say that tax credits are only one small issue among dozens and dozens of issues and if the tax credits went away I don’t think that would be a guarantee that any developer... would necessarily go away,” the professor said.
What about Stoots Mountain being close to Interstate 77, Martin asked.
While Miles didn’t know specifics about where the wind mills are proposed for Carroll, if it’s near the interstate then developers will have to deal with both state and federal transportation officials on issues like “ice throws” from the blades and accessibility.
Does a wind farm have to have a power distribution line run to it?
“Absolutely,” Miles answered. “Arguably the second most important factor after the availability of wind resources is the availability of a connection.”
Not having a way to get the power to the electric grid is a dealbreaker, he said.
Martin, as the official in Carroll County Public Schools who monitors facilities’ electricity consumption, doubted that a wind mill could power the classrooms.
That depends on the size and ownership of wind energy projects, Miles said, in response to this and other questions. There are certain places in the U.S. that have an ownership and business stake in wind farms and help decide what to do with the energy generated.
Miles estimated that a 10-megawatt wind farm could generate enough electricity to power 3,200 homes, for example.
Because of the high cost of building a coal-fired power plant, a wind farm would be highly cost-competitive with traditional generation sources, Miles went on. Researchers have to factor in the intermittence of the winds.
“You never assume the wind’s always blowing,” he explained.
Economic benefits to Carroll may be comparable to localities that financed upgrades to schools or replaced fire trucks with tax revenues from their wind farms, the professor said.
When an audience member asked about the jobs that would be created by a wind farm, Miles said there would be a burst of activity during construction and then maybe around a half dozen ongoing jobs during the turbines’ operation.
Benefits vs. Impacts
Do the benefits outweigh the impacts of a wind energy development? Eldon Karr asked during his presentation.
While Karr is an architect and has been involved in alternative energy projects, part of his interest in wind energy arises from the fact that he lives on Poor Mountain and a development was proposed for his neighborhood.
Feasibility and benefits of industrial wind projects are kind of marginal, he said. Karr put part of the blame on the inability to store electricity generated from wind for later use.
“It is tax incentives, it is a politically based, manufactured market,” he said.
Wind energy receives $23.37 in federal subsidies per megawatt hour generated, Karr argued. The next highest is nuclear, which gets $1.59 in subsidies per megawatt hour.
Karr indicated government requirements to compel utilities to get a certain percentage of their power generation from renewable sources leads to higher costs to consumers, as well as taxpayers having to pay for development of wind mills through federal funds going to grants and loan guarantees for the wind industry.
What Karr understands about the Stoots Mountain proposal specifically is that it involves about 4.25 miles along the ridge and 172 acres of mountain land that would be cleared for an installation.
He showed a picture of a development of wind turbines in West Virginia when the land looked pretty raw from construction. (Karr said later in response to a question the photos were taken during the construction phase.)
One item that many people don’t think about is that the turbine blades are really long, maybe half the length of a football field, he said. Because of this, the blades have to be trucked in.
With something so long, you have to think about both the horizontals and the verticals of the mountain road, Karr said. It requires a lot of excavation and fill.
On the impact of viewsheds and the environment, and the cost of restoring those resources after a wind farm goes in, Karr claimed that out of 14,000 wind mills standing in California, only 2,000 are actually in operation.
“Yes, they can be dismantled, but they typically are not, they’re left standing,” he said.
It seems to Karr that the most attractive areas for wind farms for inland Virginia fall right along the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive.
“That’s an economic development engine that we need to protect,” Karr said. “That doesn’t make sense to me — that’s a beauty that we have here that I treasure in terms of viewshed... that we don’t want to sacrifice.”
During the question and answer period, Stoots Mountain landowner Bryan Dixon, who has been working with EDP Renewables, wondered if Karr had ever personally visited the site of the proposed wind farm.
The wind power study has been going on for two years now.
“I don’t understand what gives you the right to come to Carroll County and tell us ... what’s going on,” Dixon said. “I don’t come to Floyd County to tell you you can’t build a barn.”
There are no trees on the top of Stoots Mountain, because Dixon clear cut them and he plans to cut more.
Several other speakers shared their opinions with the supervisors on the proposed ordinance to limit wind farm developments, the “tall structures” idea.
What the supervisors are considering would limit what a private landowner can do with their property, said speaker Donna Peery.
“If you intend to do that, you need a comprehensive zoning plan,” she suggested instead. “I don’t know if I’m for windmills or against windmills... I tell you one thing I do not like — I do not like residential development stripping off our scenic ridge tops.”
Peery also argued that several of the supervisors have never in the past shown an interest in protecting the ridges and the views. Instead, county officials let developers chop off sides of mountains.
“We don’t care because we have no zoning,” she said. “If we cared, we’d zone. You cannot just pick and choose what you want to zone out.”
The time of the older generation is running out, and it’s time to listen to what younger people want, Peery argued. “If they think it’s valuable, if they think it’s something in their future, we shouldn’t be holding them back.”
Peery feels that when the utilities and the railroads first came in, people were skeptical and didn’t want it, but they were proven wrong.
“If wind energy is viable in Carroll County, you will not stop it,” she said.
Tom Peery brought up Senate Bill 1741, which would exempt renewable power generation from local zoning and land use requirements, if approved.
“I’m not a legal scholar, but what this sounds like to me is no matter what you decide, if this bill passes the state will supersede anything this board will say,” he said.
County supervisors shouldn’t be in haste to approve anything. Tom Peery worried that the result would be spot zoning and that it could hurt private enterprise.
Emory Bearden agreed. If he wanted to invest in wind power and can make money on it, he doesn’t see why the Carroll officials should oppose it.
Tom Largen argued that the people of Carroll have already spoken on this by not having — or wanting — a zoning ordinance.
If the county officials want zoning, they should go in that direction, but don’t just pick one issue to focus on, Largen said. Tomorrow a concern could arise about something else.
Passing ordinances on other issues in the same way would lead to a hodgepodge.
Don’t pursue the “tall structures” idea, he recommended. “It doesn’t cut it.”
Supervisors took no action on the "tall structures" ordinance or wind farms after the informational meeting.