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Report: A Field Trip to Buffalo Mountain, Tennessee
May 6, 2005
by Avram Friedman
On May 6, 2005, the Canary Coalition conducted its fourth major field trip to the TVA pilot wind project at Buffalo Mountain Tennessee, in an effort to expose North Carolina government officials, community leaders and news reporters to the reality of the dramatic advancement in wind energy technology that is taking place in the world today. State-of-the-art utility-scale wind turbines have become sleek and efficient, silent, radio and television frequency interference-free and economically competitive with all other sources of energy. Seeing them in action is awe-inspiring and shatters any negative myths that may have been harbored.
tried that over near Boone about twenty years ago and everyone
complained about the noise, and the interference with their TV signals
and it was a terrible nuisance. I'm not sure I want to support
something like that right now," said NC state Representative Phil
Haire, one of the more progressive members of the General Assembly, two
years ago when I approached him in his office about helping to remove
the legal obstacles to the development of large-scale wind energy in the
mountains of North Carolina. I tried in vain to explain the dramatic
advances in wind technology since that ill-fated experiment at Howard's
Knob in Watauga County in the early 1980's. The irony of the
Howard's Knob project is that it was completely successful in proving
what it set out to prove. At a two-megawatt capacity it was the largest
wind turbine in the world at the time, and the wind on top of that
mountain was adequate to consistently generate a high volume of
electricity, proving the viability of large-scale wind energy in western
North Carolina. But, the residual effects of noise, radio/TV
interference and the cumbersome appearance of that out-dated form of the
technology stigmatized the project with negative publicity that has,
unfortunately, had a lasting effect.
If Representative Haire would see for himself how the technology has evolved since then, he would probably be very impressed, as have been the dozens of other NC government officials, community leaders and news reporters who have participated in one of the field trips coordinated by the Canary Coalition in cooperation with the Tennessee Valley Authority to visit the pilot wind energy project at Buffalo Mountain, just northwest of Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
On Friday, May 6, I pulled into the Food Lion parking lot, in Sylva NC, at 7:30 in the morning, where Bill Lyons was already waiting to carpool. Together we drove in his SUV to meet others at a truckstop off I-40 west going toward Tennessee. There were nine of us by 8:30 and we piled into Bill's vehicle and the Toyota Prius that Jean and Bruce Larson were driving to reach our lunch destination and rendezvous with Rick Carson, the TVA project manager for the Buffalo Mountain site. About two hours later we arrived at Harrison's, an upscale restaurant at exit 122 off I-75 north of Knoxville. Joan and Frank Palmroos met us there, as well, having driven independently. Among the people in our group was Keith Bamberger, Information and Communication Specialist of the NC Division of Air Quality.
NC Division of Air Quality official
Keith Bamberger joined the tour
Jack Saye, Jean and Bruce Larson lean against their Prius
we indulged in our early mid-day meal, Rick Carson spoke with us about
the wind farm and we asked questions about its operation and about
economic issues. Last year there were only three turbines at the
project area. It had now been expanded to eighteen.
Previously the entire system had an output of approximately two
megawatts. Each of the fifteen new turbines has an output of about
1.8 megawatts. The blades on the "old" turbines are each
75 feet long. The new ones are 135 feet. The old towers are 200
feet tall. The new ones are 280 feet. Each of the new machines can
produce enough power for 300-400 average households in that part of
Tennessee. Rick said the "average" household uses about
1400 kilowatts a month. This seems high to me, but apparently for
a long time houses in eastern Tennessee were designed with total
electrical heating, cooking and other appliances due to the cheap power
supplied by TVA. So, in other areas, where houses use heat pumps or
natural gas for heating, cooking and hot water, many more homes could be
supplied by each turbine. The cost of each of the new turbines is
approximately two million dollars, installed.
After lunch, we set out for Buffalo Mountain in three vehicles on Rt. 61. About half-way we stopped at the parking lot of the Moran Methodist Church where there is a view of Buffalo Mountain at about ten air-miles away.
From this vantage point, about 10 miles away, the windmills can barely be viewed on the second ridge in the distance on the right
took about 45 minutes to drive from Harrison's to the top of Buffalo
Mountain. The last four or five miles was the climb up the windy
mountain road that had been much improved since last time I had been
there in July of 2004. In order to transport the new equipment,
the road had to be widened. Most of it had been paved as well.
Now, virtually any vehicle would have no problem with the climb. Along
the way we encountered dozens of ATV's that use the mountain as a
When the turbines first come into sight it's stunning, almost surrealistic. They are monumental structures and their movement gives them the quality of props in a futuristic science fiction movie.
|But there is a majestic gracefulness to their slow and steady motion and the silence that accompanies their activity is humbling. The silence is the most striking part of the encounter for most who first witness these technological wonders. Each of the three blades is 135 feet long for a diameter of 270 feet, slowly turning an enormous mass, many tons of composite material, with unimaginable momentum and torque. Yet, there is barely a whisper of sound from the rotating blades. It's like watching a silent movie, but it's live. Each structure stands as an example of ultra-efficient architectural design, the epitome of minimalistic art and science combined, a sketch of De Vinci, a line drawing of Don Quixote, the cover of a Heinlein paperback novel.|
|Yet the beauty of these sculptures runs far deeper than their physical appearance and meditative silence, for they are converting the endless resource of the wind into a form of energy that provides life for humanity. They are producing energy that provides light, heat, water pumping, music, power that we use in our homes, schools, work places, hospitals. And these sculptures provide this energy without the use of fuels that are extracted from the earth through mountain-top removal or deep drilling and pumping, without dependence on wars to guarantee shipments of petroleum from foreign lands, without producing radioactive waste or fly ash or bottom ash or greenhouse gases or nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, mercury, radon or any kind of waste at all. This is not a surface beauty born of Vanity Fair. This is beauty in depth, the real thing. It is the way, the Tao, the path to survival with grace, a method of providing for our present needs while taking the responsibility of providing for the needs of future generations.|
"Hold on!" I hear the voice of restraint. No man-made object is that perfect. There are drawbacks and dangers to wind energy. Birds and bats will die. Natural landscapes and viewsheds will be altered. Roads will have to be carved into mountains to gain access to ridgetops. Windmills leave a footprint. All true. There is no perfect solution. If human life is to continue on this planet it will come at a cost to the environment one way or another. And so, it comes down to choices.
Due to climate change and air pollution entire species of birds and bats are becoming endangered or extinct. All man-made structures result in bird collisions and deaths. But, unlike all other structures, power-generating windmills have the redeeming feature of replacing sources of greenhouse gases and air pollution and may well, in the end, save many more birds and bats than die as a result of collisions with their structures.
As for viewsheds, the mountain ridgetops of western North Carolina and throughout the Appalachian range are being devastated by the effects of acid rain, ozone and excess nitrogen deposition, the result of emissions from coal-burning power plants. On a clear day the eye is exposed to the view of millions of dead and dying trees, a graveyard in tribute to our predominant method of producing electricity. Further to the north, in West Virginia, the ridgetops are being removed to provide the coal that is burned in the power plants. And finally, visibility has been reduced to a fraction of its natural distance by the fine particulate sulfur dioxide haze produced by these same power plants. By comparison, the view of lines of windmills along healthy ridgetops through days of clear visibility would be a welcome sight to most, I think. It would certainly be welcomed by the lungs of all who breathe, as well.
The footprint of a 1.8 megawatt wind turbine is about 1/4 acre. This represents a significant environmental impact, especially if thousands of turbines are to be constructed on our ridgetops. This, along with the access roads, is the real price that needs to be considered from a change in paradigm to a wind-based electrical grid. But, it's hard to argue that it's too high a price to pay when forced to consider the alternatives that are economically practical at this time. The alternatives are to continue to burn coal, with all its health and environmental liabilities, and/or to continue to produce more of the eternal, irresponsible and unsolvable hazard of nuclear waste as we accept the dim condition of living with the underlying, unthinkable risk of another Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island or worse, at any given time.
What about energy efficiency and conservation? Isn't that the most cost-effective and environmentally benign method of producing electricity? Yes, but it's unrealistic to believe that we won't always need to produce a significant amount of electricity regardless of how efficient our energy use becomes and how much we can consciously conserve. It's not a matter of "either, or". A sustainable energy plan for our future has to incorporate BOTH conservation measures AND clean, safe, renewable energy production. Large-scale wind turbines are by far the most economical and environmentally safe form of renewable energy production and have to be incorporated as a significant part of any realistic sustainable future energy plan.
Keith is impressed
TVA maintenance personnel answer questions
of the complex nature of developing a scheme for a comprehensive energy
plan for North Carolina, or the entire nation for that matter, it's
difficult to look at and explain the whole picture and therefore
difficult to sell the idea that wind technology is a necessary best
choice, despite its very real environmental impact. Indeed, the
environmental community itself is deeply divided over the issue. One
argument in opposition to the development of wind farms in the mountains
is that even with the construction of thousands of turbines, only a
fraction of our energy needs, about 10% based on today's energy use in
North Carolina, will be met. In effect, this argument goes, wind
technology won't be replacing any coal or nuclear plants. It will simply
add to the existing generating capacity of the grid, bringing its own
negative impacts to bear in the process, in addition to the negative
impacts of existing energy sources, as the population grows and
electrical demand increases.
There are significant fallacies in this line of reasoning, however. For one thing, the state of the technology is not stagnant. As much as wind has advanced over the past 20 years, the advancement continues and wind turbines are becoming more efficient and cost effective with every passing year. As wind is being employed to a greater extent by countries all over the world an economy of scale is beginning to drive down the costs as the technology is being improved at an accelerated pace. The generating potential of wind will increase significantly, percentage-wise, as efficiency and scale continue to increase.
But, by far the false assumption of greatest consequence in the negative argument is that electrical demand will continue to increase indefinitely as time passes. In fact, it must become a central goal of the environmental community, every government agency and all who care about the future of our planet that the opposite take place. If we surrender to the assumption that energy use will continue to increase, or even to the assumption that we cannot significantly decrease our energy consumption from the present level, then all environmental activism today is an exercise in futility and we may as well simply join the relentless march toward the inevitable total destruction of the planet's ecosystem. If our actions are to have any meaning at all, we HAVE to operate under the assumption that our efforts will be successful and that policies of conservation and energy efficiency will take hold, dramatically reducing per capita and global energy consumption in the not-too-distant future.
So, assuming that in the near future North Carolina's energy demand will dramatically decrease because of technological advances in energy efficiency and because of a new societal consciousness and economy that mandates conservation of energy, suddenly the quantity of energy produced by the wind rises from a share that may now be 10% to something that is significantly more than that, enabling the beginning of the dismantling of the coal/nuclear predominant paradigm.
Where is hope derived from that this change in paradigm can be achieved? The hope is derived from the fact that there is a universal need for this achievement and that historically great social movements have been successful once the need was firmly established in the public mind. At one time the plight of African American slaves must have seemed hopeless and freedom a dream that was beyond comprehension, until the abolitionist movement began and eventually succeeded. Once, women in America could see no path to political equity and the right to vote, until the suffrage movement organized a successful upheaval. Against all odds and the guns and nightsticks of the corporate robber barons, the labor unions came into existence after the industrial revolution. Child labor laws, anti-war movements, civil rights movements all eventually germinated and materialized from the dust of despair and apparent hopelessness when the truth at the core of the cause was brought to light and the societal need for reform made apparent. It may be difficult at the present time to see the political path to a change in the consumptive habits of the industrialized world. But, with the truth at the core of the conservation movement, with the undeniable global need for a dramatic energy consumption reduction, with the growing awareness in all circles of this reality and with the persistence of a political organizing effort, it too will succeed. Perhaps, with the aid of advanced communication technology, including the internet, it will succeed at an historically accelerated pace. The rapid advancement in wind energy technology is an essential ingredient in this paradigm change and it is happening right on time. It needs to be nurtured and promoted with all the resources the conservation community can bring to bear.
Moving Images (mpeg videos) of Buffalo Mountain Wind Turbines
*(High Speed Internet Connection Needed to View These)
As this is being written, Duke Energy and Progress Energy are seeking permits to explore sites for the construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants in North Carolina, including possible sites in the western part of the state. The rationale being used for this activity is the growing body of scientific evidence that climate change is occurring at a much more rapid rate than previously believed and that the output of greenhouse gases produced by fossil fuel-based power generation is a major contributor to this global warming trend. They are claiming that nuclear power is the only viable alternative to the construction of new coal-burning power plants for the generation of electricity on a utility-scale. Oh, really?
Isn't the moment ripe for a clear change of direction in favor of a sustainable energy future? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.
Photo by Keith Bamberger
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