CHARLESTON, W.Va. — From their inception, wind farms in West Virginia have generated controversy, even while presenting the promise of an energy source that is greener than the coal-fired economy which has so long dominated the state.
Even the phrase “wind farm” sounds eco-friendly, whereas these massive mountaintop installations in West Virginia might better be described as “wind factories.”
However you feel about them, wind farms have radically changed the viewscape of certain regions of the state. If you have never experienced a wind farm up close and personal, here is a suggested route that will take you past or through three of them in a row, in the heart of West Virginia.
The purpose in writing about such a trip is not to delve into the pros and cons of wind farms, which some see as one key part of a diversified transition to a post-coal energy economy and others oppose because of concerns over bird and bat kills, their noise, the radical way they change landscapes and other concerns.
But if you’ve never seen a wind farm except in pictures or from a far distance, a trip across the West Virginia heartland will underscore the big, wind-powered energy factories that are already spinning daily out there.
Wind power is still a small, albeit growing, part of the nation’s energy grid, and a little Mountain State wind farm touring will give you a better sense of how much harvesting of the wind is going on here.
The trip will give a vivid impression of how wind farms grab the eyes and transform the view of the green rolling hills of West Virginia into hills spiked with mammoth, twirling-blade-topped white spires marching across miles of ridge line.
I often cross the middle of the state and usually get off U.S. Route 33 and head into Elkins on my way to Seneca Rocks. Instead, this time, I decided to head north for a little turbine touring.
For a few miles along U.S. 33 before you hit the Elkins turnoff, you get an up-close glimpse of the big blades and some of the towers of the AES Corp.’s Laurel Mountain wind farm. This farm opened in October 2011 and features 61 General Electric 1.5-megawatt turbines that weave along 12 miles of ridge line.
From the roadway, you get a good gander at the length of the turbine blades, which according to the National Wind Watch website are 116 feet long, atop a 212-foot tower for a total height of 328 feet. (By comparison, the Statue of Liberty, from pedestal to torch tip, is 305 feet tall.)
One thing you will notice about wind farms — depending on the wind, not all the blades are turning all the time. The day I passed, one turbine sat idle while the three others visible from the roadside spun like pinwheels.
Continuing north on U.S. Route 219, you pass through Parsons and in a little while encounter the Mountaineer Wind Energy Center, which runs along Backbone Mountain in Tucker and Preston counties and began operation in 2002.
Owned and operated by a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources, this farm features 44 NEG Micon 1.5-megawatt wind turbines, 229 feet tall from ground to the hub of the turbine. There’s a pull-off on U.S. 219 right on the ridge line where you can get about as close to a wind turbine as you’re likely to get. It’s a popular place for taking pictures as the towers recede down the ridge line.
When it came online in December 2002, it marked West Virginia’s first wind farm and at the time was the largest one east of the Mississippi River.
Head further out U.S. 219 through Thomas, and take a right turn onto W.Va. Route 32 for a few miles before turning east onto W.Va. Route 93 toward Mount Storm.
You soon will espy the NedPower Mount Storm Wind Farm in Grant County, one of the largest wind farms in the Eastern United States. This wind farm features 132 Gamesa G80 2-megawatt wind turbines strung out along 12 miles of the Allegheny Front. Construction of the wind farm began in 2006 and was completed in 2008.
The turbines are mounted on 256-foot-high tubular steel towers, and the rotor diameter of the three-bladed turbines is 264 feet. The maximum height above ground to the top of a turbine blade’s highest point is 387 feet. They are an impressive sight seen from the highway strung along the ridge line in front of you.
Wind power faces challenges, including lawsuits over bird and bat kills and area property owners concerned about their view and property values, among other concerns. But a drive across the heartland and highlands of West Virginia will give ample evidence of the work already underway to diversify the state and nation’s energy profile in the face of rising concern about global warming — and the way it’s changing the view.