Ala.’s wind resistance is an isolated case, enviro groups say

Source: Kristi E. Swartz, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Environmental groups say it’s unlikely other Southeastern states will copy the Alabama Legislature’s attempts to stop two wind projects planned for the state’s northeast corner.
Two local bills that would regulate the location, design and operation of wind turbines in Etowah and Cherokee counties have made it to the governor’s desk. A statewide bill (S.B. 12) passed the Senate and hung in the balance in the House last week before the Legislature finished Thursday.Texas-based Pioneer Green Energy wants to build turbines along the mountainous Shinbone Ridge in the two counties.Lawsuits have slowed both projects, and local opponents have used social media, petitions and email campaigns with state lawmakers to gain support to stop Pioneer Green from building.

Neither S.B. 12 nor the local bills would stop Pioneer Green’s projects, a company official said in an earlier interview with EnergyWire. But clean energy advocates say other Southeastern states won’t follow suit if wind developers start eyeing the region for potential development.

“I think this is a very narrow interest,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “I think that Alabama is particularly bad right now when it comes to energy policy.”

Wind turbines have been little more than just a discussion in the Southeast because of the region’s poorer wind resources. The region has pockets of adequate resources — wind speeds and other geography — for turbines, according to a spokesman for the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

That, combined with specific turbine models that can match high or low wind speeds, has made the area a target for new growth.

Some of the major Southeast utilities are studying offshore wind, but none has built turbines in the Atlantic Ocean. Currently, the Buffalo Mountain Wind Farm in the Tennessee Valley Authority’s territory is the only large-scale wind farm operating in the Southeast.

Other utilities — Alabama Power Co., Georgia Power Co. and the Southwestern Electric Power Co. — have signed long-term contracts to buy power from wind farms in other states.

TVA has agreed to buy wind from Pioneer Green’s proposed eight-turbine project. The company’s larger, 40-turbine project does not yet have a buyer for the electricity.

Wind energy companies, including Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources LLC, have lobbied against the bills to regulate wind development in Alabama.

NextEra, the nation’s largest wind developer, currently does not have any projects planned for the state.

But wind projects are proposed for at least eight Alabama counties, including Cleburne County. That county is exempt from S.B. 12 after a request from Senate Majority Whip Gerald Dial (R). Cleburne County is in Dial’s district.

Projects may have a difficult time getting approval in states and regions such as the Southeast that aren’t used to having rows of turbines and spinning blades.

“It’s kind of this, ‘It’s new to the area, so we’re going to regulate it out of existence,'” said Simon Mahan, SACE’s renewable energy manager.

Rep. Becky Nordgren, sponsor of S.B. 12’s companion bill, pushed for a swift passage in the House last Tuesday. The measure was debated for more than 90 minutes and then carried over. That meant the bill still had a chance to come up again for a vote, but it was unlikely.

It’s unclear whether there was enough interest to support the bill, other issues took precedence or politics got in the way.

Arguing on the House floor, Nordgren said she considers the wind resources in Alabama to be too low to support wind turbines. She also says the turbines are noisy and dangerous.

What’s more, the wind industry needs to be regulated like other industries, she said.

“What are we going to do, pull rules and regulations off of Alabama Power, off of coal, off of AT&T?” she asked during an emotional debate Tuesday afternoon. “Everybody has some sort of a responsible rule to adhere to.”