Science & Health
7:41 am
Thu February 27, 2014

Updated: Future of Wind Power in Alabama at a Defining Moment

Wind Power Feature - Jeremy Loeb 03/04/14

A bill now before the Alabama House would set the state’s first regulations on wind farms.  The plan would mean building large wind mills to generate electricity. The plan to regulate wind power in Alabama passed the Senate last week by a vote of 24-to-6.  Bill sponsor Republican Phil Williams represents Etowah and Cherokee Counties. He says he started looking into wind farms when he learned of two projects planned for his district.

Senator Phil Williams:   “The thing that concerned me as much as anything when I began to look into it was the realization that there is absolutely zero regulatory authority in the state of Alabama regarding wind farm projects.”

And so, enter Senate Bill 12. It would bring wind projects under the authority of the Public Service Commission. The measure would also cap the amount of noise from the turbines.  But what’ve gotten the most pushback from the industry are what are called “setbacks.”  That’s how far a windmill has to be from a neighboring property.  The bill in its current form makes that distance equal to five times the height of the turbine.  Andy Bowman is president of Pioneer Green Energy, the company that wants to build the two wind farms.  He says the limits are unreasonable.

Andy Bowman:  “The bill would basically put a moratorium on wind projects in Alabama.  The setbacks are designed to be so restrictive and out of the step with other setbacks that have been adopted in states around the country, that it’s going to make it not possible to secure all the land rights necessary to build projects in Alabama.”

Senator Williams called that a “farcical argument.”  He says Pioneer is being alarmist.

Williams:  “The bill as written as what passed the Senate not only provides a setback but it also provides them the opportunity to get a waiver from neighboring and adjacent landowners so that setbacks can actually be extended, or for that matter, even done away with if the neighboring property owners agree to it in writing.”

Williams says Pioneer just doesn’t want to be regulated, which the company emphatically denies.  They say having uniform regulations can actually be helpful.  And they’d welcome them if they were fair.  They see the bill as an attempt to single out their projects to stop them from happening.  One place Pioneer is definitely welcome is at Steve Shaneyfelt’s.  He owns the property where one of the wind farms would be located.  He says he supports wind energy because not only is it a clean energy source but also a clean source of revenue for the community.

Steve Shaneyfelt: “Revenues from a wind energy project such as this one would have no harmful side effects on our children, on our homes, or the poor, as does the revenue on other such sources like alcohol or even lottery sales.  The revenue that goes back in the community is something that everyone can and everyone should enthusiastically support.”

Shaneyfelt says SB12 will make it impossible to build on his property.  He says there should be a way to regulate wind energy without it being so onerous to projects being developed, and he TOO feels like the projects are being singled out.  Senator Williams says absolutely not.  He says there’s projects being proposed in 8 counties and this bill attempts to bring them under the same playing field.

Williams:  “If we don’t have one single unified approach to regulation for wind energy, they’re gonna have 67 different counties with 67 different versions in a patchwork quilt around the state with how to handle this.”

But despite that the bill itself was amended to exempt one county from the regulations.

Williams:  “Cleburne had some special considerations and I won’t go into those on the interview, but the reality is they have a border project that is looking to sell power to Georgia and is already pretty well along into the project.  So, in the end, as part of the discussions, that particular project wound up being exempted.”

That exemption isn’t sitting well with Pioneer.  Patrick Buckley is the development manager for the company.

Patrick Buckley:  “We feel that it’s very unfair for SB12 to be considered a state bill when different counties, I guess one county is carved out.  You know that’s a pretty bad precedent to set.  How many counties are gonna be exempted after this?  And you know, in the end is it just our two projects that are being targeted?  And we believe so.”

But Williams says you also have to look at the level of support in the community.

Williams:  “The project in Cleburne that you’re speaking of, all of the local governing bodies in that area rallied around that project and saw it as something that they had spent a great deal of time and investment on.  Pioneer Green project also has for the most part, with the exception of a few individual landowners has zero support in the community.  The reality is if they ever build a tower here, at the very least there has to be some regulations in place to protect our citizens, and that’s what the goal of SB12 is.”

But Buckley says if the bill makes it through the House unchanged, building in Alabama might be impossible.

Buckley:  “Which would be unfortunate because we’ve already invested a substantial amount of money into these two communities.  You know, having hired a few people on the ground, and dedicating a lot of time and energy into bringing clean energy to the state of Alabama.”

Now both sides are waiting to see what the House does with SB12.  For APR News, I’m Jeremy Loeb, in Tuscaloosa.

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A previous version of this story ran last week:

Two proposed wind farms in Alabama could be derailed by a bill passed by the state Senate.  At least that's the fear of Austin, Texas-based Pioneer Green Energy, which wants to build wind farms in Etowah and Cherokee Counties.  Senator Phil Williams' (R-Cherokee, Etowah Counties) Senate Bill 12 set regulations on wind farms that Pioneer says amount to a moratorium on wind energy in the state, though a substitute version amounted to what Pioneer representatives called "a step in the right direction."  Among them are a cap on the noise a turbine can produce.  The original bill called for a hard cap of 40 decibels:

(i) The noise levels measured at the property line of the property on which the system has been installed shall not exceed 40 decibels.

But a substitute offered by Williams on Feb. 20th raised it to an average of 50-decibel levels measured at the property line border.  From the substitute: 

(m) The noise levels directly attributable to the operation of the system measured at the property line of the property on which the system has been installed shall not exceed an average of 50 decibels.

Pioneer says they have no problem with the decibel levels, but they have a problem with where they would be measured from.  They say rather than the property line, decibel level should be measured at bordering homes or structures.  Steve Shaneyfelt is the property owner where one of the wind farms would be located.  He says the rule doesn't make sense.

 Shaneyfelt: “You know down here in rural Alabama with all the noise factors we have with gun ranges, and road traffic, and trains, that’s a pretty big restriction compared with no restriction on all the other things, but we have to respect other people’s property, other people’s privacy.  I absolutely agree to that.  I think there’s a way to do it without making it so onerous that a project cannot be constructed.”

The bill also sets limits on how far a turbine can be located to the nearest homes and buildings.  Again, that rule was amended in the substitute from what was a limit of 2,500 feet from the nearest property line:

(j) A wind energy conversion system may not encroach upon adjacent properties as determined by a measure of 2,500 feet from the center-mass base of the system to the nearest edge of the adjacent property.

The substitute sets the limit at 5 times the height of the turbine to the nearest occupied structure: 

(n)(1) A wind energy conversion system may not encroach upon occupied residential or commercial structures or public use areas as determined by a measure of five times the height of the turbine tower as measured laterally from the center-mass base of the system to the nearest edge of the residential or commercial structures or public use areas.

Shaneyfelt says his property isn't large enough to accommodate the proposed restriction.  Patrick Buckley, the Development Manager at Pioneer Energy says it's far more restrictive than industry standards. 

Patrick Buckley: “We’re held to a much stricter standard than any other industry that we’re aware of in the state of Alabama.  We feel like not only is this out of line with industry standards, but this is definitely a very, very strict regulation.  And then comparing it to other industries, you look at the coal industry, a coal mine can be placed 300 feet from a home, and a hundred feet from a property boundary line.  So we don’t feel like we’re getting a fair shake.”

Bill Sponsor Senator Phil Williams did not return multiple calls and e-mails over several days in time for this story, though efforts are ongoing.  He said during floor debate that any new alternative energy in the state must be regulated.  Property owners in Etowah County filed a lawsuit against the project. Lawyers for the plaintiffs told the National Review the wind farms would create what they claim would be an "overwhelming negative impact to the scenic beauty of the area," and that vacation and secondary home construction business would be lost.

The bill passed the Senate Thursday afternoon 24-6 and now goes to the House.

This story ran last week.  A more up-to-date version can be found by scrolling to the top.