Senate lawmakers this afternoon brought the state a step closer to a total ban on commercial wind development on North Caorlina's mountain tops with an overwhelming vote in the Senate Finance Committee of the General Assembly.
Panel members agreed to restrict wind power development to residential uses on towers limited to 100 feet tall. That restriction prohibits commercial wind farms, which link multiple turbines that can exceed 300 feet.
Wind power advocates say banning wind power development in the western part of the state would prevent harnessing nearly 800 megawatts of estimated wind potential in the mountains, equivalent to a mid-sized nuclear power plant.
The full Senate could take up the measure as early as this week in Raleigh. The House also will review the proposal.
Sen. Martin Nesbitt Jr., a Democrat of Buncombe County, said erecting a fleet of industrial-scale wind turbines would destroy pristine views and mar the landscape by requiring new roads to be built to access the turbines for maintenance and to run transmission lines.
"You're not going to plop them down along our ridge lines and destroy everything we have up there," he said to other lawmakers before today's vote.
"Some of these things are as tall as the Bank of America in Charlotte," Nesbitt said. "If anyone wants to bring in a whole fleet, we will have a holy war."
The vote this afternoon clarified the 1983 Mountain Ridge Protection Act, which bans tall structures along mountain ridges, but makes exemptions for steeples, flagpoles, antennas and windmills. Wind power advocates have argued that windmills include commercial wind turbines, but wind energy developers were reluctant to invest in a costly project as long as the meaning of the law was not settled.
A proposal several years ago to build between 25 and 28 commercial wind turbines in Ashe County died after meeting fierce opposition from local communities.
North Carolina's tallest mountains have among the best wind energy resources in the nation, with average annual speeds as high as 25 miles per hour. Wind resources on the coast and offshore average between 15 m.p.h. and 20 m.p.h., while wind speeds in Raleigh average about 9 m.p.h. and are considered inadequate for commercial development.
Sen. Joe Sam Queen, a Democrat who represents western counties, said the proper place for commercial wind development is on the coast, offshore and in the Midwest.
"Let wind be developed elsewhere while we protect the mountains," said Queen, who represents Avery, Haywood, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell and Yancey counties.