November 4, 2011 | Sustainability + Energy

As this blog post goes live – if all goes as planned – something very exciting is happening on a West Virginia mountain, which NRG Systems has been working on for three years.

Our donated 60-meter wind measurement tower, fitted with anemometers and vanes, is rising into the sky on a timbered ridgeline owned by John Sams and adjoining landholders. By day’s end, the met tower’s data logger will start collecting and transmitting detailed information about winds blowing up and over this mountain. The goal is to help a coalition of neighbors build the first community-owned wind project in this part of Appalachia.

Last spring, NRG Systems CEO Jan Blittersdorf and I traveled to Alderson, West Virginia, in the Allegheny foothills along the Greenbrier River. This corner of the state, unlike adjoining counties, has no coal deposits to speak of. For more than two centuries, the local economy has depended instead on farming and timber.

Jan and I met John Sams for coffee at the Big Wheel diner. John, the youngest of 11 children born and raised in these parts, is a beef farmer and small timber operator. Along with neighbors and renewable energy advocates, he is working to launch a community wind project on Wolf Creek Mountain.

A Different Kind of Energy from Appalachia

Community wind” refers to a wind energy project that has significant local ownership. Nationwide, community-based projects are being launched by farmers and ranchers, businesses, colleges and universities, religious organizations, nonprofits, Native American tribes, and municipalities.

If John’s mountain acreage, combined with land from adjoining neighbors, proves to have sufficient wind, it could support between two and eight wind turbines.

“What we do here could be the model for community wind in neighboring counties and across West Virginia,” says John. “We’re going to be the forerunner. That’s why we have to do it right.”

About a year ago, Chris Shepherd, project manager for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, phoned John to talk about wind turbines.

John laughs, “I came home one day and my wife told me someone named Chris had called, talking about putting a wind farm up on Wolf Creek. I thought it was some kind of hoax. I didn’t call back for two weeks. When I finally did, I still didn’t believe he was serious.”

John quickly decided that Chris was indeed serious and worth listening to. A fellow West Virginian, Chris has roots in the southern coalfields, where his great-great-grandfather ran the general store, his great-grandfather was a coal camp doctor, and where Chris’s family still manages a farm. He is proud of West Virginia’s past, but is looking to the future.

“Before coal in the 19th century, our main fuel was wood. West Virginia made the leap to coal technology,” says Chris. “Now we can make the next leap to wind energy.”

Another key partner in the Alderson project is Windustry, the leading community wind nonprofit based in Minnesota.

Windustry Program Manager Dan Turner explains his role this way: “I look for good sites, evaluate the resource, get to know the local people, and help explain the potential for wind as an economic opportunity. I’m especially involved with the landowners – it’s their land and they care most.”

According to Dan, wind projects on medium-sized ridges like Wolf Creek’s offer unusual opportunities. On sites too small for large commercial development, these projects can connect to the transmission grid at lower cost, requiring less up-front infrastructure investment. They can also support greater local engagement in project ownership and management. This kind of power generation is a promising way to diversify the region’s energy mix.

Can Wind Reverse the “Resource Curse”?

Places with abundant, easy-to-obtain raw materials often suffer from what development experts call the “resource curse.” Whether it’s African diamonds, Amazon timber, or Appalachian coal, the story is the same. Investment focuses on extracting the resource cheaply for quick export to more developed areas, while neglecting local industrial and business development. When the resource is exhausted, there is little else to build on in its place.

How much coal is left in West Virginia? The U.S. Department of Energy projects that by 2015, Appalachian coal production will have dropped to just half of 2008 levels. That’s why forward-looking Mountain Staters like Chris Shepherd and John Sams and his neighbors are acting to diversify economic possibilities, by learning to harvest renewable wind energy.

When Jan and I visited West Virginia last spring, we looked at the devastating environmental and human impacts of mountaintop removal mining. Developing wind energy leaves the mountains intact, while continuing West Virginia’s heritage of energy production.

Wolf Creek Wind: Next Steps

The Wolf Creek project is in the early stages of organization and assessment.

The next question is exactly how much wind blows across this particular ridge. West Virginia terrain is so hilly that its wind resource varies widely from place to nearby place. Not until actual wind speeds on the proposed site are logged and verified can the project’s feasibility, size, and output be estimated. That’s where the donated NRG Systems tower and technology fit in.

If the wind resource is as promising as it looks, the attention will shift next to community engagement, permitting, and financing. John Sams and his neighbors expect strong local support.

“The wind farm will be a great boost for Alderson, a chance to bring in more jobs and more sightseers,” says John. “From just outside of town, you’ll be able to look a mile away and see the turbines working. The name – community wind – that says it all. This kind of project can unite us.”

Dan Turner has watched many community wind projects evolve and knows they are never a sure thing. But he gives higher odds for this one’s success. The key reason is leadership.

“John Sams has become one of my heroes,” says Dan. “He’s motivated by wanting to do what’s best. He’s an entrepreneur and he likes to create jobs for people. John is motivated by his sense of community.”

As for the donated NRG Systems tower and technology, its work will continue. Once Wolf Creek Mountain’s measurement phase is complete, the tower will be lowered, broken down, packed up, and sent to another prospective Appalachian community wind site.

“This isn’t going to be one of those wind towers that goes up and gets forgotten,” John promises. “This one is going to get wore out!”