THOMAS, W.Va. -- The windswept mountains of the pine-covered Allegheny Front hold a remote scenic attraction, with a carpet of campgrounds, parks, ski resorts and the Monongahela National Forest.
The rugged ridges and valleys are also pocked with old strip mines, a reminder of the prominent role that King Coal has played in the development of the aptly named Mountain State.
Along the ridgeline of Backbone Mountain, however, the ground is being broken to tap a new source of energy, as workers erect a series of gray tubular towers mounted with 115-foot-long white blades.
When fully assembled by year's end, this Mountaineer Wind Energy Center of 44 turbines will be the largest wind farm in the East.
FPL Energy's 66-megawatt power system -- enough to supply electricity to nearly 50,000 homes -- is the first of such projects that could turn this Appalachian region into what one advocate enthusiastically calls "the Saudi Arabia for wind power."
That hyperbole is based on serious prospects: a Dutch firm applied in August for a state permit to build 200 windmills in this northeast corner of West Virginia that embraces Maryland's western panhandle.
A 250-megawatt wind farm around Mount Storm recently got state Public Service Commission approval. And Dominion Resources is also weighing a wind energy project to be located next to its coal-fired generating plant at Mount Storm.
"Wind is an important component of our nation's move toward energy independence as we harness our natural resources for production of electricity," says Ron F. Green, former president of FPL Energy, the leading U.S. wind power generator and owner of the Mountaineer center.
With $2 billion invested in U.S. projects last year, wind energy is picking up; it is expected to provide about 6 percent of domestic power needs by 2020. (Europe remains the world leader in harnessing the wind; Denmark snatches 15 percent of its electricity from the air.)
The sudden race to build electricity-generating wind turbines in this part of the Alleghenies is driven by economics and politics: significant federal production tax credits, authorized by Congress this year, are guaranteed only for commercial wind generators in operation by the end of 2003.
With at least a six-month delay from order to delivery for the machines, there's not a lot of leeway in spinning new windmills.
In truth, wind power is a light breeze in the main currents of U.S. energy -- about three-tenths of 1 percent of supply, with about 4,300 megawatts of installed generating capacity. That's about 2.5 times the power capacity of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant.
Despite surprising reductions in wind power costs -- an 80 percent drop in the past two decades -- the tax credit of about 1.8 cents per kilowatt-hour barely makes wind power commercially competitive with coal-fueled plants.
But other factors are making wind increasingly attractive.
Wind is "free" fuel, a renewable source, without the disruption of mining. Costs of construction and the extensive land required (leased or bought) drive up the price of wind power. With its small-scale generation projects and the inevitable problem of nature's reliability, wind's acceptance by major power suppliers and networks is often problematic.
What wind has going for it is emission-free generation -- with no carbon-fuel air pollution and no greenhouse-gas emissions tied to global warming. (And little danger of terrorist attack.)
With world pressure building to cut warming gases, and with tighter U.S. limits on air pollution, wind power's prospects are rising. At least a dozen states require a minimum percentage of wind and other alternate energy sources in the total supply sold within their borders. (A Maryland version of such a requirement failed in the last General Assembly session.)
"It's as environmentally friendly as you can get -- no air emissions at all from these generators, no liquid discharge at all from them," says Jim Cookman of Mount Storm Wind Force. That Pennsylvania company recently won state permission to erect 166 wind turbines near Bayard, W.Va., that will produce 250 megawatts of power for the region.
West Virginia doesn't rank particularly high in projections of potential wind energy. The American Wind Energy Association, a trade group, rates the state about 24th.
California is the historic leader in wind power, which provides 7 percent of that state's electricity. The Midwest-Plains area and Texas, site of the world's largest wind farm, are new development hotbeds. In the East, most attention has focused on offshore Atlantic schemes and on a patchwork of state-subsidized projects in New York.
But lots of variables influence the economics of commercial wind energy -- including land prices, remoteness from developments, proximity to transmission lines and long-term contracts with buyers.
"West Virginia is in a region with good wind power potential," according to Sam Enfield, who helped plan the Mountaineer center project.