Weiss Lake (located in Cherokee County and near Etowah County, Alabama) has the noble distinction of “Crappie Fishing Capital of the World” and is the lifeblood of Northeast Alabama’s tourism. The lake was created in the 1950s and 1960s as Alabama Power developed a hydroelectric dam on the Coosa River. Several organizations have arisen in an effort to improve and protect Weiss Lake and the surrounding watershed. Wind energy generation may provide a new opportunity to advance those protection efforts. Wind farms use modern technology for electric generation, emit no air pollution and consume no water, and at the same time, offer local communities economic development opportunities that can spur reinvestment into local programs and infrastructure – key factors that make wind energy a clean power resource and a new tool to help efforts to save Weiss Lake.
One major way that wind farms could be used to help the vitality of Weiss Lake is to generate revenue that could be used on lake cleanup efforts. Sadly, Weiss Lake has been left with legacy pollution from an electric transformer manufacturing facility in Rome, about 20 miles upstream from the lake. That facility, along with others around the country, used polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in its products which eventually made their way into the Coosa River watershed. PCBs are highly toxic and their effects (including cancer and reproductive problems) are well studied. Many types of wildlife, especially bald eagles, are also at risk. The Alabama Department of Health continues to warn anglers to limit consumption of certain fish because of excessive PCB levels, even though PCBs were banned in the 1970s. Included in the warnings are Weiss Lakes’ famous Black Crappie. Perhaps ironically, the Weiss Lake dam generating station may have used PCB-laden transformers, as the substance was in wide use during the time the dam was built. Fortunately, power plant transformers today (including those used by wind turbines) have moved off of toxic PCBs and can use mineral oil or biodegradable vegetable oil instead.
While the legacy PCB pollution will continue to impact Weiss Lake for an undetermined amount of time, tax revenue from a wind farm could be used by the local communities to help monitor PCB levels in the lake. State budget shortfalls have prevented the Alabama Department of Health from monitoring the lake more closely. An economic impact study of the proposed wind farms in Cherokee and Etowah counties suggest the local governments may earn around $200,000-$300,000 and around $709,000 to $1.14 million, respectively, every year after construction for 30 years. As such, local communities could invest in Weiss Lake by supporting water quality monitoring, cleanup projects, buying conservation easement properties, or improving the region’s tourism-related infrastructure. Plus, the wind farms themselves can become tourist attractions, as other wind turbines around the Southeast have proven to be.
Moreover, wind energy is good for conserving water in general, since it does not require any water to generate electricity. Weiss Lake’s tourist appeal is mostly derived from the Coosa River’s continual supply of water. This water supply, however, can be compromised during drought conditions, when the various uses of water across the South begin to compete against each other. In parts of the Southeast like Alabama and Georgia, power plants are by far the largest users with water withdrawals ranging from over 80 percent to upwards of 50 percent (respectively) of the states’ total water use; with other uses like agriculture and public drinking water playing smaller roles. The Department of Energy estimates that developing 1,000 megawatts of wind energy in could save 1.6 billion gallons of water annually. Since wind farms use no water to generate electricity, wind energy can dramatically save valuable water resources for other uses; like conserving water for fishing, farming or simply fun.
Not only can wind energy help conserve water, but wind farms can also help reduce the pollution going into local waterways. Coal-fired power plants emit mercury, a neurotoxin, which can then make its way up the food chain and into the fish we eat. Many waterways in Alabama have fish consumption advisories placed on them because of excessive mercury pollution. Even in areas where no consumption advisory is posted, fish with enough mercury to trigger a health warning can be caught. Recently, a record striped bass caught on the Black Warrior River had mercury levels higher than the state’s “no consumption” level, but the Alabama Department of Environmental Management hadn’t tested striped bass recently and the Alabama Department of Public Health had not issued any warnings in regards to this species.
Wind farms can offer the excellent benefits of economic development and being a point of community pride, but without the downsides of traditional energy development such as water stress and pollution. Wind farms won’t be able to solve all the problems facing Weiss Lake, but they certainly may be a step forward.