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Wind farm OKd in West Virginia


Chicago firm wants 124 turbines on ridges

By William Neikirk
Tribune senior correspondent

August 29, 2006

WASHINGTON – West Virginia’s Public Service Commission on Monday approved a Chicago company’s plan to put 124 giant wind turbines atop scenic mountain ridges in the southeastern part of the state, despite protests from many residents.

The commission not only handed a major victory to Beech Ridge Energy LLC, a subsidiary of Chicago’s Invenergy LLC, but also gave another boost to the expansion of wind power on the East Coast. The firm’s $300 million wind farm in Greenbrier County would generate 186 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 50,000 homes.

The wind farm would be connected to the electrical grid and supply “clean and green” energy, most of which would be exported out of state, since West Virginia is a net exporter of electricity. The company would receive large production tax credits under the terms of an energy bill approved last year and strongly supported by President Bush.

Wind power accounts for less than 1 percent of the nation’s electrical power, but Bush, in a statement that many said was excessively optimistic, said this amount has the potential to rise to 20 percent if the industry utilizes sites where the wind is strong enough to support a wind farm.

Dave Groberg, director of business development for Invenergy, praised the commission’s decision. “The Beech Ridge wind farm will be a great project,” he said. “It will be good for Greenbrier County, West Virginia and the USA. It will create good-paying construction and operating jobs, significant local and state tax revenues and 20-plus years of clean, renewable, home-grown electricity.”

Opponents, led by Dave Buhrman, head of Mountain Communities for Responsible Energy, did not immediately respond. Before the state panel’s decision, representatives of the group indicated that if the project was approved they might appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Invenergy, founded five years ago, has become a major player in the wind-power industry, with projects in several states.

The turbines, each 391 feet tall or roughly 70 percent as big as the Washington Monument, would stand in clusters along 4,000-foot ridges that stand just north of the Interstate Highway 64 corridor.

The company minimized any spoiling of the view, saying that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and that the giant turbines themselves would attract tourists.

It would be the second large wind farm in West Virginia, and there could be more in this state with numerous mountains prone to strong winds.

Opponents said such projects would not be economically viable without the tax credits, and could be abandoned if the credits expire and are not renewed. But the commission required the company to post a bond to cover 25 percent of removal costs should the project be abandoned.

Residents complained that their scenery would be spoiled by a national policy exploiting them while supplying extra energy to the cities they left behind.

The West Virginia project had pitted residents in the coal-mining western part of Greenbrier County against those in the more affluent eastern side, where many transplants from East Coast protested that the turbines would spoil stunning mountain views.

Protesters also said the project would harm tourism, cause more light pollution at night, kill bats and birds, create more noise, disturb the serenity of nearby cemeteries, bring little economic benefit, and raise the risk of forest fires.

The commission rejected these arguments, although it conditioned its approval on actions by Beech Ridge to comply with the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty, and the National Environmental Policy Act in both the construction and operation of the wind farm.

One of the major problems with wind-power projects is that bats find the turning blades irresistible and fly into them. Beech Ridge agreed to test a proposal designed to ameliorate this problem, by delaying the start of the blades until the wind reaches a speed in which bats would not normally fly.

The Sierra Club supported the wind farm, saying it would bring cleaner energy, but proposed conditions to help protect wildlife.

The commission said its order reflected the spirit of the club’s orders. Local opponents said environmental groups had sold out to the corporations.



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