With a "whoosh, whoosh, whoosh," the graceful blades of 18 windmills on the South's first commercial wind farm are now producing enough clean power to be seen as more than just an eco-experiment.
OLIVER SPRINGS, Tenn. With a "whoosh, whoosh, whoosh," the graceful blades of 18 windmills on the South's first commercial wind farm are now producing enough clean power to be seen as more than just an eco-experiment.
When the farm opened with three turbines in 2001, it generated a mere 2 megawatts of electricity, enough for just 360 homes. But the December addition of 15 larger turbines -- each as tall as a 26-story building -- boosted the capacity to 29 megawatts, enough for 3,000 homes.
"Magnificent," said Rick Carson, the Tennessee Valley Authority's renewable operations manager, as he gazed out on the windmills dotting a two-mile forested ridge atop Buffalo Mountain.
Still small in comparison to big wind farms in the Great Plains and Pacific Northwest, TVA's expanded operation is huge for the Southeast, where there is less reliable wind.
TVA is the nation's largest public utility, serving about 8.5 million people in Tennessee and parts of Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.
The new turbines rise 262 feet, 49 feet taller than the three originals. Their seven-ton, 135-foot-long white blades can be seen for miles.
Despite their size, the spinning rotors can barely be heard over the mountain breeze or the coal mining that continues farther down the mountain.
Privately financed by Invenergy LLC of Chicago, the $30 million expansion is expected to help erase a supply deficit in TVA's Green Power Switch renewable energy program, leaving a surplus that could be sold to other utilities.
Fears that a wind farm would be a blight on mountain vistas have caused problems elsewhere for TVA.
Chattanooga homeowners blocked TVA's first proposed site on Lookout Mountain five years ago so TVA came to Buffalo Mountain, about 30 miles west of Knoxville.
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, now threatening to sue TVA over its coal plant pollution, raised similar concerns in 2003 when TVA suggested a second clean-energy wind farm near the North Carolina border in Mountain City, Tenn.
With few other sites offering enough available wind -- the turbines need a 14 mph breeze to generate power -- TVA returned to Buffalo Mountain with an expansion plan and a 20-year, $60 million power purchase offer to lure private investor Invenergy.
"I can't say I've had the first complaint," said Anderson County Mayor Rex Lynch, other than tiny Oliver Springs' demand to be paid for roads damaged in hauling the heavy turbines through town. TVA and its contractors wrote the town a $35,000 check.
The expanded wind farm can now be seen some 10 miles away in downtown Oak Ridge, home to a large Department of Energy nuclear weapons and energy research complex.
"I think Oak Ridgers are proud of it and like to show it off when they have visitors in town," Oak Ridge Mayor David Bradshaw said.
Environmentalists have championed TVA's Green Power Switch program, which has 7,156 residential and 339 business customers paying premium prices for renewable energy.
"Nobody from Kentucky south or Louisiana east has done this much," said Stephen Smith, director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
Unlike some utilities, such as Florida Power & Light, that are selling customers green power made outside the region, TVA's is homegrown.
"Now there is a lot of rumbling going on," Smith said, "because TVA has demonstrated that it can be done and these turbines are performing well."
Source: Associated Press