North Carolina Senate Rejects Mountaintop Wind Farms

Published November 1, 2009

The North Carolina Senate has voted overwhelmingly to ban commercial wind farms from the state’s picturesque western mountain ranges.

With its 42 to 1 vote, the Senate appears to have dealt a near-fatal blow to prospects for commercial generation of wind energy in the Tar Heel State.

The Senate vote came on August 6, at the end of the legislative session, leaving no time for the House to take up the bill.

Proponents of wind farms are expected to seek to revive support for mountaintop wind complexes, but the near-unanimous Senate vote illustrates strong statewide opposition.

Few Viable Sites

As is true of most southern states, most of North Carolina lacks sufficient wind for giant turbines to produce enough energy to make wind farms commercially viable, even with generous federal subsidies.

Only in the highest peaks of North Carolina’s segment of the Appalachian Mountains, some of which soar well above 6,000 feet, is there a relatively constant flow of wind. But these areas, with their spectacular waterfalls and riveting rock formations, have a natural beauty lawmakers do not want blighted by gigantic wind turbines.

In 1983, North Carolina enacted the Mountain Range Protection Act, known as the Ridge Law, which generally prohibits construction along the state’s ridgelines of buildings and other structures higher than 40 feet. The Ridge Law, however, makes an exception for traditional windmills on rural residential property. Proponents of wind power had hoped to expand the definition to include commercial wind turbines.

Residential Turbines Allowed

The wind energy industry supported in this year’s legislative session a bill to establish a permitting process for wind farms in other counties in the state. Fearing that could open the door to construction of wind farms in the mountains, legislators from western counties amended the bill to remove any ambiguity surrounding the Ridge Law’s restrictions on construction on ridgelines.

Under the Senate bill, traditional windmills up to approximately 100 feet in height will be allowed to generate electricity for residences in the mountains. But giant commercial wind turbines, which can be as much as 500 feet tall, are prohibited.

Renewable Mandates Loom

Legislators who thought the Senate vote would once and for all keep the state’s mountains from being blighted by wind farms may be in for a nasty surprise, however.

In 2007 the General Assembly passed a law requiring utilities to generate 7.5 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2021. Wind power, for all its flaws, is perhaps the most viable way to meet that mandate in the state.

“The legislature created this problem of having wind turbines in the mountains when it passed a law mandating utilities to buy renewable energy,” said Daren Bakst, a legal and regulatory analyst with the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation. “Without this mandate, nobody would ever develop wind farms, because of their high costs. So long as there is a mandate to buy renewable energy, there will be intense pressure to build massive commercial wind turbines in the mountains.

“If the legislators were really concerned about this issue, they’d get rid of the mandates,” Bakst said.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC.