By Donna Thornton/News Editor
The Etowah County Commission recently heard a request that it support a pre-filed Senate bill that would regulate wind farms in the state of Alabama, and at the commission’s work session on Nov. 12, the members heard another request that they not support the regulations as proposed.
Pioneer Green Energy, a Texas-based company, has proposed two wind farm projects, one near Cherokee Rock Village in Centre and another along Shinbone Ridge, about seven miles from downtown Gadsden.
Both projects have raised opposition from some surrounding property owners and from people who oppose the idea of putting wind turbines in these scenic locations. Lawsuits have been filed by opposing property owners to block the projects.
Other property owners have negotiated agreements with the company to lease their land for placement of the turbines, which could be as tall as 570 feet.
From the start of public discussion about the possible wind farms, Etowah County Commission members have had the same message for those for and against the idea: The commission cannot do anything about the proposed project because it has no regulatory authority and no zoning authority.
A bill pre-filed in the Alabama Senate could change that. Sen. Phil Williams filed a bill in July that would provide for regulation of wind energy conversion systems, establishing a number of controls and specifications, including that systems receive a permit from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and that systems be approved by the appropriate local governing body.
Some commission members questioned the bill giving the commission an authority denied it by the state constitution.
Commissioner Larry Payne asked attorney Christy Knowles, present as a representative of Pioneer Green, if giving the commission the authority to govern wind turbines would open the door to request for the commission to block other projects that might be deemed undesirable to neighboring property owners.
Knowles said in her opinion, it could.
Payne expressed concern that if the commission was put in a position of denying approval for wind turbines, it would find people asked it to block cell towers, or chicken or hog farms.
Pioneer Green Energy Development Manager Patrick Buckley said there are some points in the bill that the company take issue with.
Buckley said the company is not opposed to regulation. However, a statement from Pioneer Green states that Williams’ bill “is not in line with other practical ordinances that have allowed for reasonable and successful wind energy development in other states.”
Buckley said the bill calls for a setback of 2,500 feet – meaning the center of the base of a wind turbine would have to be 2,500 feet from the nearest edge of adjoining properties. He said normally, setbacks are established from the nearest residence, not the edge of the property line. Unless a property owner has thousands of acres of land to put wind turbines on, he said, the bill would block them.
Alabama’s coal mining permits, the statement from Pioneer Green says, require a set back of 300 feet from a any residence, and allows for those setbacks to be waived.
Buckley said it appears the bill is meant not to be a regulatory bill, but to be a moratorium on wind energy development.
Another component of the bill would require bonds covering the cost of reclaiming property and removing abandoned wind turbines; Pioneer Green Energy, and property owner Steve Shaneyfelt, who plans to lease property to Pioneer Green, said the agreement between the company and landowners includes a bond to secure removal obligations.
Buckley said the proposed $160 million project would bring substantial tax revenues to Etowah County and create clean, domestic energy.
Senate Bill 12, in its current state, would prevent that investment and the economic benefits wind energy could bring to Etowah and Cherokee County.
Opponents to the project say wind turbines would be a noisy nuisance, a threat to birds, and they do not believe there is enough wind in the area to make turbines a feasible energy source. Some have said companies like Pioneer Green Energy take advantage of subsidies and/or tax incentives for developments without regard for the actual production of energy.
Buckley said the tax incentives the company receives come after energy is produced. He said the company has done years of study that indicate there is enough wind in Etowah County to produce energy.