Windstorm of debate

Windstorm of debate

October 1st, 2010 by Pam Sohn in News

A proposal to put 120 windmills - each as tall as a football field is long - on the brow of Lookout Mountain is blowing up a windstorm of debate.

"They're loud. They vibrate," said Carl McCleskey, of Cloudland, Ga. "This mountain has 2,000 caves in it and a geology like Swiss cheese. And when they blast to put these in, what's going to happen to our water [wells, if the rocks shift]?"

Contributed Photo Wind turbines on Buffalo Mountain.

Iberdrola Renewables, based in Spain, proposes a line of turbines near Lookout Mountain Scenic Highway and Georgia Highway 157 in Walker and Chattooga counties. The plan calls for up to 120 gigantic windmills, each rising 300 feet tall, with 135-foot blades.

When the blades are vertical, the turbine assembly stretches up to 435 feet. When the blades are horizontal, they will span 90 yards.

Though the Chattanooga region is known for polishing its green image, area leaders are struggling with the possibility of a wind farm atop its most iconic ridge - the 84-mile long Lookout Mountain that stretches through the corners of Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.

Walker County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell said she does not support the plan.

"I think it will be very detrimental for Lookout Mountain and the tourism here. People come here to use our trails and mountain camps. With towers here, I worry that tourists would just go away," Heiskell said Saturday after sitting in on a residents' meeting aimed at raising opposition to the wind farm.

Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman, who is based in Pennsylvania, said he can't offer many specifics about the proposal except to say it's environmentally friendly.

"It's way early. We don't even know yet from where to where it might reach (along the mountaintop)," Copleman said. "We're contacting landowners to offer land leases in Walker and Chattooga counties. First we'll have to put up wind test towers to see what wind is there."

Bobby Davenport,long a green advocate and whose family put Georgia's Lula Lake property in a preservation trust, said it's not the best idea.

"The problem with windmills is they're in your face," Davenport said. "And they're just not very efficient. ... In this neck of the woods, the sun shines a lot more than the wind blows."

David Crockett, with Chattanooga's Office of Sustainability, didn't warm to the idea, either.

"I'm not wild about that, aesthetically," he said. "If you're sensitive about houses being built on the brow (and marring vistas), what are you going to think about something that's 300 feet in the air?"

The other green

One green group, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, advocates giving the proposal a chance.

"Wind energy opponents often cite noise or property value concerns as primary reasons to throw away a multimillion-dollar opportunity - despite evidence showing these impacts are either nonexistent or can be mitigated substantially," said Anna Cayce, the alliance's wind expert.

Responsible wind developments undergo year-long wind studies and environmental assessments, she said. Public meetings throughout the process give local residents gain information and express their concerns, she said.

Once an official wind farm proposal comes to fruition, residents should become well informed about the potential project and then judge, she said.

"This important decision should not be made based on old or misguided information, but on current and objective facts," Cayce said.

Though Iberdrola's Copelman said he couldn't offer much local information now, he pointed to the company's 37-tower Hardscrabble Wind Power Project in Herkimer County, N.Y., which has undergone pre-construction studies.

The proposed wind farm will produce 200 jobs as well as generate $592,000 per year for three towns, two school districts and the county, he said. Lease payment to about 30 landowners a total of about $650,000 a year for the life of the project, he said.

"During the (Hardscrabble) development and construction phases of the project, we estimate that we will spend over $4 million on local goods and services," he said. "We conservatively estimate that over $6 million will be spent on materials sourced from within the state (New York)."

The final say

It's unclear what, if any, environmental rules might govern Georgia wind farms.

Dawn Harris-Young, spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said there are no emissions or waste products from wind turbines, so EPA has no oversight unless the project receives federal funds.

If it does, the funding agency must decide what level of study is required under the National Environmental Policy Act, commonly called NEPA, she said. EPA can review and comment on the study.

Kevin Chambers, with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, said the Peach State likewise "would not have any sort of permitting role" for a wind farm.

"The only thing we can think of is there may be some land disturbance issues in building the towers, and those would likely be addressed by a local (permit) issuing authority," he said.

Heiskell said Walker County has zoning rules, and any towers sited in Walker would have to be approved by the zoning board.

"But Chattooga County doesn't have zoning rules," she said.

Jason Winters, Chattooga County sole commissioner, said it appears "if private landowners want to pursue this, it can happen."

"What I've urged our folks to do is not to commit to contracts yet until we know more," Winters said.

Georgia state Rep. Barbara Massey Reece, D-Menlo, shares the concerns of the more than 60 people who crowded into a Cloudland, Ga., living room Saturday to learn more from their neighbors about wind power.

"It really needs careful consideration," Reece said. "While we need alternative forms of energy, tourism and water are legitimate concerns for our community, as is the question of [the wind-power project's] effect on property values and on wildlife from the noise pollution."

Efficiency questions

Reece said everything she has seen in the state Legislature indicates that Georgia is not a good state for wind power.

But Copleman said new technologies are maximizing returns in lower and variable wind areas.

"Publicly available wind power maps are guides but not gospel, and we are at least interested in studying the wind for ourselves, to create a more accurate picture of the wind resource in the area," Copleman said.

Ten years ago, wind maps also said states like Pennsylvania and Ohio were not viable for wind farms, he said. Now Pennsylvania has more than 700 megawatts of wind energy installed. It is home to major wind-turbine manufacturing facilities, he said, and construction on Ohio's first large wind project is about to begin.

And, as technology improves, wind turbines are becoming quieter, too, he said.

The Tennessee Valley Authority has its own wind farm at Buffalo Mountain near Oak Ridge.

At the farm, which is five miles from the nearest home, wind power operates at optimum capacity only 25 percent of the time, said TVA's Rick Carson. The farm's 18 wind turbines can supply power for about 3,250 homes a year, he said.

The wind farm power is sold to customers who are willing to pay more to promote clean and alternative energy through TVA's Green Power Switch program, Carson said.

TVA spokesman Mike Bradley said Iberdrola has not contacted the agency about selling power from the proposed Lookout Mountain farm to TVA, although TVA does buy power from another Iberdrola wind farm in Illinois.

Copleman said it's too early to talk about selling power from the proposed Georgia turbines.

Pam Vias, who hosted Saturday's information meeting in the living room of her Cloudland home, distributed petitions to neighbors, asking them to gather opposition signatures.

"This is not wide-open plains or the middle of nowhere. This is a residential area, all along the track of Highway 157. This doesn't belong here," she said.Heiskell says she agrees, and she and Chattooga Commissioner Winters expect to have a teleconference conversation with Iberdrola officials today

"We'll know more then," Heiskell said.

Contact Pam Sohn at psohn@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6346.