A Chicago company’s proposal to place windmill generators in West Virginia divides a community and even environmentalists
By William Neikirk
Tribune senior correspondent
Published August 28, 2006
WILLIAMSBURG, W.Va. – In a state where mountaintops are routinely removed to mine coal, controversy has erupted over a Chicago company’s proposal to erect 124 wind turbines atop some of Appalachia’s tallest ridges.
Here in Greenbrier County, where mountains rise more than 4,000 feet to dominate the skyline, the battle is mostly about the “View,” with a capital “V.” And here, the “View” means tourist dollars to local businesses and a scenic paradise to local escapees from cities to the north.
Vegetable farmer David Buhrman, head of Mountain Communities for Responsible Energy, said turbines nearly as high as 40 stories would become an eyesore “and a new focal point for what we have” had here for the last 10 million years.
The company, Beech Ridge LLC, a subsidiary of Chicago-based Invenergy LLC, has a simple response in its briefing material: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
David Groberg, Invenergy’s director of business development, said a similar, though smaller, project in West Virginia attracts tourists and added that many people would find the turbines a graceful sight.
The turbines would be 391 feet high with the tip of one of the blades in vertical position–about 70 percent as tall as the Washington Monument. Buhrman said they could be visible for 15 miles in some locations, but the company said they would be hardly noticeable a few miles away from most areas. The opposition said lights on the turbines also would disturb stargazing in one of the darker spots on the East Coast.
The state’s Public Service Commission is scheduled to rule on Monday whether to approve the $300 million project, which is expected to generate 186 megawatts, enough to power 50,000 homes. It will culminate an intense battle that has divided communities, individuals and businesses–and even environmental groups.
But the fight also is shaping up as another big test for wind power as a “clean and green” form of alternative energy encouraged by President Bush. The Appalachian range provides some of the better sites for wind power along the East Coast.
N.J. transplant worried
“It’s not just us,” said Stan Zahorenko, a transplant from New Jersey who has lived here with his wife, Debra, for more than a decade. “It’s the beginning. If it is approved, it will just keep going.”
But Groberg said: “I think wind power has a very bright and promising future.”
If the commission should reject the project, it would be a setback, he said, but added that “it would not slow down the industry” because there is a strong push for renewable energy in America.
Invenergy was founded in 2001 as an energy generation company and owns facilities in several states, including Illinois. Its development program includes acquisitions of operating power and energy projects and also initiating “greenfield” energy projects, such as wind farms.
The company has projects totaling 7,500 megawatts under development, including conventional generating plants that use natural gas, according to a press release. Michael Polsky, a graduate of the University of Chicago business school, is president and CEO.
The Sierra Club angered local opponents by supporting the project as another step toward cleaner energy. But state chair Paul Wilson said the environmental group’s backing was subject to conditions, such as the company’s taking steps to prevent harm to endangered species and to protect thousands of bats that could be killed if attracted to wind turbines.
“The environmental groups–they’ve sold out,” said Williamsburg opponent Rufus Cox. “They’re just going along with the corporate mentality.”
The Greenbrier, a well-known spa and hotel some 20 miles away, came out against the project. Although Groberg said the hotel’s clientele could not see the wind farm from that distance, Ted Kleisner, the president and managing director, said the turbines would be visible from the top of Greenbrier Mountain on its property.
The battle has another dimension: East versus West. More residents from East Coast cities have bought homes, settling mostly in the eastern part of the county. In the western part of the county, where coal is mined, it is poorer, and there is less concern about views of the mountain.
Helen Levine, who moved from Washington, D.C., said she invested $210,000 in a home on a mountain near Williamsburg and is concerned that property values might decline.
Small town likes idea
But in Rupert, a small town in the western part of the county where Beech Ridge has its headquarters, there are signs everywhere proclaiming “Yes to Clean Energy.” Rupert Mayor Charles Mundy, 83, wears an Invenergy cap.
“I’m for it,” the mayor said. “I think it will be a boost to the area and to clean energy.” He said the town’s economy hit the bottom after the coal-mining boom turned into a bust in his area. And now, he said, some of the residents will have a chance to get construction jobs and perhaps some of the 20 permanent jobs that will be created.
Despite the argument about harming the beauty of the area, the turbines would sit on ridges that have been targets for clear-cutting by the landowner, MeadWestvaco Inc. of Glen Allen, Va. On the western side, the land is also pocked with strip mines.
“It looks like a bomb went off in there,” said Rupert’s Gary Smith, a retired aerospace executive and supporter of the project, describing the site.
Hillary Hosta, an organizer for Coal River Mountain Watch of Whitesville, W.Va., who supported the project before the Public Service Commission, said well-managed wind farms “are highly preferable to practices like mountaintop mining, which affects not only viewsheds but people’s lives and communities.”
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