Sunday, August 15, 2010

Wind Energy in West Virginia: Coal River Mountain

Tom Zeller, Jr. has an article in this morning's Times ("A Battle in West Virginia Mining Country Pits Coal Against Wind," here) about efforts to prevent mountaintop removal coal mining on Coal River Mountain in Raleigh County, West Virginia.

Environmental activitists and wind energy supporters argue that certain mountains in southwestern West Virginia (where the state's coal industry is concentrated) would actually be good spots for wind energy farms.  Don Blankenship of Massey Energy (about whom I also wrote on April 10, here), which leases the mountain, is having none of it: he argues that coal opponents are effectively driving American companies to set up shop in Asia, where energy is considerably cheaper.

According to Zeller, approximately 50% of the United States energy supply comes from coal.

462.  Over the course of the next 50 years, how much will this percentage change?  Will it drop down to 40%, or will the change be more substantial than that?  I guess it somewhat depends on the country's evolving attitudes towards nuclear energy, which I gather could become a more significant source than either wind or solar.

463.  Does Don Blankenship specifically like controversy?  He seems to be so outspoken and anti-environmentalist, versus so many corporate leaders who will attempt to "talk the enviro talk" even if they don't actually "walk the walk."

464.  What percentage of China's energy supply comes from coal?  How about Russia's?

West Virginia is the second-leading American state in terms of coal production (158 million tons annually) behind Wyoming (468 million tons). Surprisingly, though, only 20,000 jobs in West Virginia are "coal-industry related" (I'd have thought the number would be considerably higher).

The owner of Coal River Mountain, Rowland Land Company, is blunt in admitting that coal is considerably more profitable than wind:
David Pollitt, owner of the Rowland Land Company, the largest of the property owners on Coal River Mountain, says he has nothing against wind farms in principle, but adds that he believes the technology is too expensive, too undeveloped and too rife with its own environmental objections to be viable. In any case, until mountaintop removal is banned, he says leasing his land to coal developers is simply too profitable not to do.

“Certainly if it came to a point in time where the companies we have it leased to say they don’t need the surface, then we can look at alternatives,” Mr. Pollitt says. “And if there ever comes a point in time where they completely outlaw surface mining, we’d certainly look at alternatives. We’d look at anything that would generate income for us.”

For now, though, that’s likely to remain coal, and Massey Energy has already begun blasting on one corner of Coal River Mountain.
According to Zeller, there's been a multi-year controversy about a potential wind energy project in Greenbrier County, West Virginia (I think that's where The Greenbrier is located), and the majority of the locals are against it. A US District Court decision earlier this year will let a portion of the Greenbrier wind project proceed.

One thing I had not realized about wind energy is that a major point of opposition is that the windmills cause a strobe-light effect (from the sun shining through) that is, according to Zeller, very unpleasant if you live nearby.  I'm familiar with the aesthetic and noise arguments against windmills, but I had not heard about the strobe-light issue before.

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