RALEIGH — Some legislators and environmental groups are trying to get commercial-scale wind power along the mountain ridges of western North Carolina. This would mean that lines of commercial wind turbines, which can be as tall as 500 feet (or 50 stories), would line the ridges.
Unfortunately for these wind power proponents, the state’s Mountain Ridge Protection Act, known as the Ridge Law, generally prohibits the construction along the ridgelines of tall buildings and structures that exceed 40 feet. There are some narrow exceptions to this prohibition, including an exception for “windmills.”
However, it is clear from the statute’s language that large commercial-scale wind turbines would be prohibited. In 2002, Roy Cooper, North Carolina’s attorney general, wrote a letter to the Tennessee Valley Authority interpreting the state’s Ridge Law.
In the letter, he explained that the law allows only “the traditional, solitary windmill which has long been in use in rural communities.” In other words, a small grain mill would be allowed, but tall, electricity-generating turbines wouldn’t be.
Wind power proponents have tried to change Cooper’s mind, but to no avail. The only way wind power would be allowed in the mountains is to change the Ridge Law, which is exactly what wind power proponents are trying to do.
This past legislative session, the state Senate didn’t succumb to the intense pressure to amend the Ridge Law to allow massive commercial turbines on the ridges. However, it did pass a bill that would allow wind turbines, slightly taller than 100 feet, to line the ridges, so long as the turbines are primarily for personal residential use.
Wind power proponents wanted a lot more and weren’t content with the Senate’s actions, even though the Senate allowed turbines that currently would be prohibited under the Ridge Law. The House didn’t take up the bill, but could do so in next year’s legislative session, and could go even further by allowing commercial wind turbines.
Wind power proponents have significant leverage in getting commercial wind turbines. In 2007, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 3, which requires utilities to generate 7.5 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2021. Wind power is one way to meet this mandate on utilities.
North Carolina has very limited wind resources. The only viable locations for commercial wind power are on the coast and along mountain ridgelines.
If it weren’t for this law, commercial wind power wouldn’t even be a possibility because utility companies never would purchase electricity generated from this costly and unreliable source. The legislature had to force utilities to buy renewable energy to guarantee a market for wind power developers. As utilities struggle to meet the 7.5 percent requirement, there will be even more pressure to have commercial wind turbines in the mountains.
Individuals should be able to build what they want on their property. There shouldn’t even be a Ridge Law. What is built on the ridgelines should be based on the freely made choices of property owners, not on government mandates.
My concern with commercial wind power in the mountains is about forcing North Carolinians to pay higher energy costs for expensive and unreliable electricity. These turbines wouldn’t be built if the renewable energy mandate did not exist. A property owner has a right to build what he wants on his property. He doesn’t have a right to force the public, through government mandates, to pay for what he wants to build.
Unless S.B. 3 is repealed, there will be a constant push for wind power in the mountains. Only a proactive effort will stop massive commercial wind turbines from eventually covering North Carolina mountain ridgelines.
Daren Bakst is legal and regulatory policy analyst for the John Locke Foundation.