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State mandates deserve blame for mountain wind power controversy

New JLF report urges repeal of renewable energy bill, Ridge Law

Contact: Daren Bakst
919-828-3876
dbakst@johnlocke.org

August 24, 2009

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RALEIGH -- North Carolina would feel no more pressure to build commercial wind turbines along its mountain ridgelines if lawmakers scrapped their two-year-old renewable energy mandates. That's the assessment a John Locke Foundation expert makes in a new Spotlight report.

Click here to listen to Daren Bakst discussing this Spotlight report.

The report urges repeal of both the energy mandates and a state Ridge Law that limits mountain construction. "Some opponents of massive wind turbines have relied on the Ridge Law to block construction of those turbines in the North Carolina mountains," said report author Daren Bakst, JLF Legal and Regulatory Policy Analyst. "But that Ridge Law violates the rights of individuals to use their property."

"The real problem is renewable energy mandates lawmakers adopted in 2007 in Senate Bill 3," Bakst added. "Get rid of those energy mandates, and you won't see any commercial wind turbines along the mountain ridgelines."

Wind power advocates have been pushing for commercial wind turbines in the mountains, Bakst said. "These are turbines as tall as 500 feet, the height of 50-story skyscrapers," he said. "The mountains and the coast are the only locations where wind power is viable in North Carolina."

Advocates have run into problems with mountain wind turbines because of the 1983 Ridge Law, officially known as the Mountain Ridge Protection Act.

"The Ridge Law generally prohibits most tall buildings over 40 feet from being built along the ridgelines," Bakst said. "Any reasonable interpretation of the Ridge Law would block commercial wind turbines. Attorney General Roy Cooper reached that conclusion in 2002. The law would allow only small traditional windmills that have long been in use in rural communities."

The N.C. Senate approved Senate Bill 1068 this year to promote wind power, Bakst said. "This bill creates a special exception to the Ridge Law that expressly allows personal residential wind turbines that can be slightly taller than 100 feet," he said. "Even though this represents a major exception from the existing law, it's not good enough for wind power proponents. They want massive commercial wind turbines in the mountains. They have tried to spin the Senate's actions as efforts to block wind power."

This debate ignores a key point, Bakst said. "The only reason that this controversy exists is because the legislature took action in 2007 to provide special treatment for wind power," he said. "Without that special treatment, commercial wind turbines in the mountains would not even be a possibility. The high cost and unreliable nature of wind power would stop turbine plans in their tracks."

Wind power and other forms of renewable energy get special treatment because of S.B. 3, Bakst said. "That 2007 law requires utilities to find ways to generate 7.5 percent of their electricity from renewable sources, such as wind," he said. "That means utilities are looking for renewable energy sources, even when those sources cost too much and don't work as efficiently as existing sources. For all practical purposes, the legislature is dictating that commercial wind turbines be built along the ridgelines."

Bakst's report offers an easy solution. "Repeal the renewable energy mandate in S.B. 3," he said. "By removing this provision, there no longer will be a subsidy to wind power developers that guarantees an artificial demand for this costly and unreliable source of electricity. It also would remove the pressure to build commercial wind turbines along the ridgelines."

While lawmakers are scrapping bad laws, they should target the Ridge Law as well, Bakst said. "A statewide blanket prohibition on development along the ridges violates the rights of individuals to use their property," he explained. "This prohibition also improperly allows the state to grant special exceptions for special interests and development that's considered 'politically correct.'"

Bakst rebuts fears that repealing the Ridge Law would open the door to commercial wind turbines. "Remember that this is the second recommendation in my report, after the primary recommendation of repealing S.B. 3," he said. "If both S.B. 3 and the Ridge Law were repealed, this would not lead to the construction of commercial wind turbines along the ridgelines. These turbines would not be built if North Carolina electricity customers were not forced to pay for their construction because of renewable energy mandates."

If the Ridge Law remains in place, Bakst has some advice for the N.C. House. "If the House considers S.B. 1068 next year, it should respect the proper interpretation of the Ridge Law and remove the special exception the Senate has created for tall wind turbines," he said. "As a matter of good government, the legislature should not be in the business of granting special exceptions for preferred development."

Daren Bakst's Spotlight report, "Wind Power and the Ridge Law: N.C. Legislature Should Stop Providing Special Treatment for Wind Power," is available at the JLF Web site. For more information, please contact Bakst at (919) 828-3876 or dbakst@johnlocke.org. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or mkokai@johnlocke.org.

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