Wind Farms Draw Mixed Response in Appalachia Huge windmills -- promoted as a source of clean, renewable power -- are sprouting up on mountaintops in the Appalachian states. But some local opponents say the tall turbines blight the rural landscape.
NPR logo

Wind Farms Draw Mixed Response in Appalachia

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Wind Farms Draw Mixed Response in Appalachia

Wind Farms Draw Mixed Response in Appalachia

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


On Mondays, the business news focuses on technology. Today the pros and cons of windmills.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: The Appalachian states lead the nation in coal production, but now there's an effort to harness another type of energy there. Huge windmills are sprouting up on mountaintops from western New York through Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The futuristic machines are promoted as a source of clean, renewable power. They're often not welcome by locals who say they blight the rural landscape.

NPR's Adam Hochberg reports.

ADAM HOCHBERG reporting:

Highland County, Virginia is the least populous county in the eastern United States. Just 2,400 people live here, in a place with no traffic lights or supermarkets or factories. But local landowner Tal McBride envisions little Highland County as a leader in America's quest for renewable energy.

Mr. TAL MCBRIDE: Come up here on top of the hill. I want to show you something.

HOCHBERG: McBride has big plans for his family livestock farm, just inside Virginia's border with West Virginia. On land so rural that an outhouse still stands behind his grandmother's old homestead, McBride wants to build 19 high-tech windmills--white metal turbines as tall as 400 feet, each with three spinning blades designed to harvest the gusts that rolls across this mountain farm.

Mr. MCBRIDE: Now, you hear the wind?

HOCHBERG: I hear the wind.

Mr. MCBRIDE: That's a huge wind resource.

HOCHBERG: Is this a particularly windy day up here, or is it always like this?

Mr. MCBRIDE: This is not particularly windy at all. But it's windy right now. And with the wind resource here, that's the best use of the mountain, is to capture that wind resource.

HOCHBERG: McBride says his farm is blustery enough to power about 20,000 homes. That may not be a lot in and of itself, but McBride's wind project is one of more than a half-dozen proposed for Appalachian hilltops from Pennsylvania to Virginia; part of a wind development boom sparked by generous tax subsidies and a growing interest in renewable power.

Frank Maisano is an energy industry spokesman who's lately been promoting wind farms on the east coast.

Mr. FRANK MAISANO (Energy Industry Spokesman): This can't be the sole answer to challenges of climate change, but it can be a piece of a puzzle. And, if you have a renewable resource here that is non-polluting, has no emissions, it's a win-win-win for the environment, for the county itself, and for addressing some of the challenges that we, as the United States, face.

HOCHBERG: But before wind developers can take on those national challenges, they have to take on some challenges closer to home.

Unidentified Woman: All rise. The commission resumes its session. Please be seated.

HOCHBERG: When Virginia regulators held a hearing in Highland County to talk about Tal McBride's proposed wind farm, local opinion was overwhelmingly negative. Residents fear the windmills will destroy the area's scenic beauty.

Real estate agent Randy Richardson says people come to Highland County to see unspoiled mountain vistas, not tall towers with whirling blades.

Mr. RANDY RICHARDSON (Real Estate Agent, Highland County, Virginia): You're talking about a huge structure, and I just don't see how they could possibly build any structure 400 feet tall, regardless of whether it was a copy of, I don't know, the Venus de Milo 400 feet tall, that anyone would find attractive on top of one of our mountains.

HOCHBERG: Richardson predicts the windmills will hurt tourism, just about the only industry in Highland County. And Shawna Bratton(ph), whose family owns 900 acres near the proposed wind farm, worries about its effect on property values.

Ms. SHAWNA BRATTON: I don't people would be near as likely to invest in this county. In fact, I know some people who have come to look at property in this county have already stated concerns about the wind turbine project and put some of their plans on hold.

HOCHBERG: Similar opposition has surfaced in other east-coast towns where wind farms are proposed. West Virginia residents have filed a nuisance suit to block construction of one wind project, while opponents of turbines off the coast of Cape Cod are hoping for Congressional intervention to stop them. Indeed, even in communities already living with wind farms, you'll find little consensus about them.

(Soundbite of wind, windmills turning)

Rural Tucker County, West Virginia has 44 mountaintop windmills, tall enough that their rotating blades can be seen for miles, and loud enough that their whooshing sound is heard in the nearby hollows.

Ms. PAULA STAHL: It sounds like an alien spaceship going to hover over you.

HOCHBERG: Artist Paula Stahl lives within earshot of the Tucker County windmills, and says they've done the environment more harm than good. Studies have documented that the turbines here have killed thousands of bats, and Stall says other wildlife has been affected as well.

Ms. STAHL: There was a lot of black bear, wild turkey, bobcat, deer up here. These came in, they moved out. They headed further down in the valley where the people live. They're creating more trouble for farmers and stuff down there.

HOCHBERG: You think these things are scaring them away?

Ms. STAHL: Well, I wouldn't live under it if I could move down the hill. If was just an animal and went where I wanted, I would move away from it.

HOCHBERG: But talk with Tucker County residents who live further from the turbines, people who don't see or hear them as much, and attitudes are more positive. The wind farm has become one of the County's largest taxpayers. There's little evidence it's hurt property values, and Robert Burns, the County's former economic development director, says tourism has actually grown as sightseers are drawn to the unusual towers.

Mr. ROBERT BURNS (Former Economic Development Director, Tucker County, West Virginia): Everything from state senators to you little league team have been by, just out of curiosity. Especially when you're just driving by, it's a good time just to stop off, look at them, and take pictures.

HOCHBERG: Even the environmental community is divided over the issue of wind farms. Some groups, like the Virginia Audubon Council, oppose them because of the threat to bats and birds. Others, such as Environmental Defense, support them, arguing wind power harms the planet far less than fossil fuels do.

One thing most environmentalists agree on is the need for better standards about where the big windmills should be built to limit their impact on rural communities and prevent more disputes over the future of the Appalachian skyline.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: For a state-by-state breakdown of wind energy projects, go to

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.