A summer breeze tousles Dr. Beth Mast’s hair, still streaked pink from a recent roller-derby match, as she shows off a demonstration wind turbine near the Jane S. McKimmon Center. A renewable energy specialist at the NC Solar Center, Mast plans to use her GenX spunk to convince old-time farmers across eastern North Carolina that the answer to some of their energy needs is blowing in the wind.

Working with the Coastal Wind Initiative (CWI), a Solar Center program that studies the speed, direction, and sustainability of wind, Mast is looking at the feasibility of placing towers topped by three-blade turbines on farms and in backyards to create electricity from thin air. Eight mobile units test winds at different locales and help drum up interest. “Although the Wright brothers came to Kitty Hawk because of the wind, wind is very site-specific in North Carolina,” she says. “This isn’t like the Midwest, where the wind blows constantly across the plain.”

It’s also different from the Mediterranean island of Malta, where Mast worked with an Italian wind engineer while in college. She later erected a couple dozen towers and turbines across Virginia before helping launch CWI two years ago. “There are a lot of misconceptions about the turbines, like they’re noisy or they kill birds,” she says. “We’ve just got to go out with the facts and convince people of the economic and environmental opportunities offered by wind energy.”

The breezes blow long and hard enough across North Carolina’s coastal sounds and barrier islands to build a wind farm—a series of turbines that could sustain thousands of homes. But Mast says winds also reach an average sustained speed of 10 mph—the minimum needed to power a turbine for a single house—in pockets across eastern North Carolina. She is working with environmental groups and state and federal agencies to identify tax credits and study local ordinances to clear the way for the construction of more wind turbines. “The more defined the path can be for development,” she says, “the more interest there will be.”

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