THOMAS, W.Va. — Vincent Collins, a lawyer from nearby Morgantown, has been vacationing in this scenic area for 35 years. A few years ago, he bought a 1.2-acre lot near here and planned to build a house on it. But once he saw the windmills, and learned of plans for more, he scrapped that dream.
Soaring above the treetops are 44 sleek white steel cylinders, 228 feet high. Churning on each tower are three glinting fiberglass blades, 115 feet long. Like quills on a porcupine, they spike the emerald spine of Backbone Mountain for six miles along the Allegheny Front.
They have also generated huge turbulence within the environmental movement. Proponents of wind farms view those who oppose them as heretics, obstructing the promise of clean renewable energy, while opponents decry them as producing insufficient power to warrant their blight on the landscape.
For now, the wind farm here is the largest east of the Mississippi, but the wind-energy industry, long a staple of the California landscape, is blowing eastward. Unobstructed winds, favorable economics and the absence of local zoning laws are attracting developers, and soon more than 400 turbines could be sprouting across 40 square miles of West Virginia's most scenic mountaintops.
"I can't believe how large and hideous they are," Mr. Collins said. "When you hear the word `windmill,' you think Holland and Don Quixote. That's wrong. They look like alien monsters coming out of the ground."
The growing industry has caused a kind of identity crisis among people who think of themselves as pro-environment, forcing them to choose between the promise of clean, endlessly renewable energy and the perils of imposing giant man-made structures on nature.
To some environmentalists, the opposition to wind power from within their ranks not only stifles the growth of a new source of energy but also calls into question the integrity of the environmental movement itself.
Charles Komanoff, a longtime economic consultant to environmental groups, said the opposition by "well-heeled environmentalists," stoked the preconception that they were more concerned about their own backyards than about the common good.
"They want to have it all and they won't brook any trade-off, especially a trade-off that sacrifices their own comfort," said Mr. Komanoff, who is based in New York.
At the same time, the wind farm developers appear to have the environmental high ground.
"We believe in clean energy," said Steve Stingel, a spokesman for Florida Power and Light, which bought the rights to the wind farm here and then built it. The company is the largest generator of wind power in the United States, with 30 wind farms in 10 states.
Wind now accounts for less than 1 percent of all electricity produced in the United States. But the American Wind Energy Association, the industry's trade group, predicts it will grow to 6 percent by 2020.
The case for wind has been fortified in recent years by advances in technology that make it more efficient and a federal tax credit that makes its financing more feasible.
But the reality for people like Mr. Collins is something else. Windmill farms must be large to be financially viable. Critics worry that beyond the blemish on the natural landscape, these industrial-sized towers can chop up migratory birds. One farm in California was dubbed the "condor Cuisinart," and the ornithologist monitoring the wind farm here just reported that at least two dozen song birds winging their way north had been killed.
Another complaint is that wind farms can do little to reduce overall dependence on fossil fuels, because of the unreliability of constant wind and the inability to store its power.
"They put out such a minuscule amount of electricity," Mr. Collins said. "It's nuts."
Similar complaints, coming from prominent environmentalists like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., have stalled installation of the nation's first off-shore wind farm, proposed for the waters of Nantucket Sound off Cape Cod. And they have forced the Long Island Power Authority to scrap its plan for wind turbines off the eastern tip of Long Island. But the utility has now proposed putting up to 50 turbines, each 488 feet high, off Long Island's south shore between Fire Island and Jones Beach, two immensely popular summer resort areas.
Mr. Kennedy, for one, said he found "zero" irony in the fact that he had devoted himself to environmental advocacy and yet opposed the wind project on Cape Cod, his Kennedy grandparents' summer home.
"There are appropriate places for everything," he said in a telephone interview. "You would not want a wind farm in Yosemite, and you wouldn't want one in Central Park."
Mr. Kennedy added: "I love wind energy, but let's develop some rules about how you divide up the commons. You're essentially giving the commons over to a profit-making enterprise."
It is not only homeowners with nice views who object to wind farms, but business owners as well. Indeed, it was Wayne Kurker, owner of the Hyannis Marina, who first notified Mr. Kennedy about the proposed project in Nantucket Sound.
"I didn't like the idea that what we consider our Grand Canyon was all of a sudden going to be industrialized," Mr. Kurker said of the wind farm, which would consist of 130 turbines over 24 square miles.
Mr. Kurker founded the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound and has been joined by scores of local politicians, chambers of commerce worried about the effect on tourism, and celebrities like Walter Cronkite in opposition to the project.
The main reason wind is taking off now is the huge financial incentive provided by government subsidies. While critics argue that these subsidies are only making developers rich, supporters say they are peanuts compared with subsidies for fossil fuels and they provide much-needed revenue to ailing rural economies while also delivering clean energy.
The main subsidy is the federal tax credit, which is set to expire at the end of the year but is likely to be renewed by Congress. The credit allows windmill companies to deduct 1.8 cents from their tax liability for every kilowatt hour they produce for 10 years. The savings are huge.
For example, Jerome Niessen, president of NedPower, which has received permission from the West Virginia Public Service Commission for a 200-turbine wind farm near here in Grant County, said he expected to generate 800 million kilowatt hours per year, for a tax savings of $16 million a year for 10 years, or $160 million — on a wind farm that will cost $300 million to build.
NedPower is to pay $500,000 in local taxes, making it the fifth-largest taxpayer in the county. (That is far less, however, than the $3 million the company would have paid just two years ago, before wind energy lobbyists persuaded the government to tax towers and turbines at a lower rate.) The company has also developed a public-private partnership with two local schools, which will earn royalties from the wind farm of about $75,000 a year.
The company will pay local landowners $2,000 to $4,000 an acre to lease the necessary 8,000 acres for the towers. And putting up the towers, which will rise 330 feet high and extend across 10 to 12 miles of mountain ridges, will provide 200 construction jobs for a year and 15 permanent technician jobs.
"Fifteen jobs might not sound like much," Mr. Niessen said. "But if one coal mine after another has closed and if another chicken-processing plant has closed, 15 jobs is a lot."
Copyright 2003 New York Times Company