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As the Gulf of Mexico darkens from a deep-sea oil leak and the push for offshore oil drilling slows, some North Carolina lawmakers say state legislation to regulate large-scale wind farms is likely to die this year.
Facing conflicts over funding education and other priorities, boosting job creation and balancing a state budget amid flagging tax collections, legislators said Tuesday they have yet to find a compromise on wind farm regulations.
As lawmakers prepared to start their annual session on Wednesday, a pending proposal would establish regulations for where wind turbines can be built. It passed the Senate last year 42-1 with a provision banning energy-generating windmills from Appalachian ridges, a move seen as protecting mountain vistas key to the region's tourism industry.
"I think we plan to leave it alone because anything we try to do, the Senate will put a ban in it," the House Energy Committee chairwoman, Rep. Angela Bryant, D-Nash, said Tuesday. "So we are hoping that nothing will happen."
But advocates for the state's growing alternative energy sector want to keep from walling off territory that could be exploited to generate clean energy.
The House Energy Committee's vice chairwoman, Rep. Pricey Harrison, believes the ridge-top ban is a bad idea at a time when wind-power companies want to operate in North Carolina and electric utilities are required to get more of their energy from renewable sources.
"I think we are reluctant in the House to move a bill that is perceived as being anti-wind at a time when our energy policies are attracting a lot of interest in renewable energy providers," Harrison, D-Guilford, wrote in an e-mail. "I don't mean to sound insensitive to the mountain area legislators. They have legitimate concerns. But there is a better way to accommodate their concerns than such legislation."
The bill would require a state permit to build wind farms. They could be blocked if they harm navigation, wildlife or the views from any state or national park.
Wind-power advocates recently proposed a compromise that would pare about 140,000 acres of windy elevations west of Interstate 77 down to about 10,000 acres with good potential for generating power, said Brandon Blevins, wind program coordinator for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. The remaining sites are away from the vistas offered from federal and state lands, off bird flyways, yet near existing transmission lines and roads, Blevins said.
The wind from the remaining sites could produce between a third and a half of the 760 megawatts generated by Duke Energy's coal-burning Cliffside plant in Cleveland and Rutherford counties, alliance executive director Stephen Smith said.
But Senate Majority Leader Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, insisted Tuesday that mountain peaks are no place for turbines that may stand 40-stories tall.
"When you look at where the wind energy is, it's on the coast, it's in the Midwest, it's in the Gulf," Nesbitt said. "The wind energy across the mountains is spotty at best."
Nesbitt's view has the backing of Senate leader Marc Basnight, D-Dare.
"I agree with him. We should not put those turbines on top of the mountains," Basnight said.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, working at the General Assembly's request, last year reported the state's Outer Banks holds strong potential for utility-scale wind energy production that could create thousands of jobs. UNC-CH researchers and Charlotte-based Duke Energy plan a demonstration project in an eastern portion of the Pamlico Sound. The project is undergoing an environmental review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Duke Energy hopes to start construction within the next two years, spokesman Jason Wall said.