Officials are confirming that two wind farm proposals in Alabama will not be moving forward. That means Cherokee and Etowah counties will forego about $27-$43 million in combined new tax revenues – revenue that could have been used to build a new park near Weiss Lake, improve the quality of the lake, provide education scholarships for high school graduates, create a new tourism niche, or reduce local taxes. According to studies by Jacksonville State University, the Shinbone and Noccalula wind projects would have created about 350-490 full time equivalent construction jobs, and about 36 to 53 permanent jobs for the projects’ expected 30 year lifespans.
Even though the announcement of these wind farms’ abandonment is just now being published, the reality is that they died in early March. That’s when the state legislature passed two local bills specifically designed to kill wind energy in Cherokee and Etowah counties.
The new regulations established impossible limitations for wind farm development, including a 40 decibel sound limit (which is quieter than the wind itself, without a wind turbine, and far more onerous than the Environmental Protection Agency’s voluntary limit of 55 decibels). Etowah County, which boasts that its minimalistic regulations bolster economic development, has its own sound decibel regulation of 75 decibels.
The anti-wind local bills also include a nearly quarter-mile “set back” limit from a property line. A landowner would have to own at least 600 acres of land before he could be permitted to construct a single wind turbine on his property. Meanwhile, a coal mine can be permitted as close as 300 feet away from a home, church, park or any other public building. Of the few environmental regulations that do apply in Etowah County, very few if any would apply to a wind farm simply because wind farms emit no air pollution (thus do not need an air permit), discharge no wastewater (thus do not need a State Indirect Discharge Permit), create little to no stormwater runoff, and emit no hazardous waste. Simply put, if the Shinbone or Noccalula wind farms were actually a coal mine, they could have been operational by now.
The wind farm ban, disguised as regulation, was heavily lobbied for by a local anti-wind farm activist group. No Wind Alabama began with a false premise that “no wind” exists in Alabama for wind farm development, despite the fact that updated estimates using modern wind turbine technology prove Alabama has a good wind energy resource. The small but vocal group borrowed tactics from national anti-wind activist groups, citing long debunked myths about wind farms and spinning wind turbine blades.
No Wind Alabama’s stance is contradictory: if no wind exists in the state, wind turbines would not spin and virtually none of the supposed negativities of a wind project would occur. No regulations would be necessary. In an attempt to address this clear conflict of facts, No Wind Alabama invented a conspiracy. The conspiracy is that wind turbines that produce zero energy receive enough in federal subsidies to be a lucrative business opportunity. Two problems exist for this conspiracy. First, the primary incentive for wind farms is the production tax credit (PTC). The PTC is based solely off the number of kilowatt hours of electricity actually generated by a wind farm: again, a wind turbine would have to spin for the developer to receive this tax credit. The second problem with this conspiracy is that the federal incentives for wind energy expired on December 31, 2013 for projects that had not begun construction. Ignoring reality, the anti-wind activists cited blogs and opinions, used outdated information and overstated the negativities while ignoring the benefits of wind energy. The state of Alabama provides no incentive specifically for wind energy.
To continue the coal mine comparison, meanwhile, the coal industry enjoys a permanent, state paid-for production tax credit, among other subsidies.
Local anti-wind activists also launched a lawsuit against the proposed wind farms. The Alabama anti-wind lawsuit was heavily plagiarized from a 2005 Texas lawsuit against a wind farm that ultimately lost in four separate court cases. Perhaps recognizing the lawsuit as a losing strategy, the anti-wind activists decided to turn state over-regulation into a weapon against wind farms. Ultimately, the over-regulation did the trick: wind farms are now effectively banned in Cherokee and Etowah counties.
Alabama is a state that prides itself on its pro-business attitude, low regulatory requirements, and property rights. Yet wind energy, which could be providing jobs and tax revenue with very low environmental impacts for landowners who choose it, is now likely the most onerously regulated industry in the state… much to the benefit of the coal industry.