The first utility-grade wind farm proposed in Virginia is hailed by its supporters as clean energy that can help stem global warming and rising fuel prices. But mountaintop residents near the Highland County site worry about what the blades of 18 towers taller than the Statue of Liberty would do to their environment.
That would include rare or endangered birds, bats, and a few other species, as well as a wild trout stream.
Eleven state agencies have reviewed the Highland New Wind Development proposal and come up with a lengthy list of suggested studies, including an analysis of the cumulative impact of wind farms on the four-state Allegheny Mountain region.
The State Corporation Commission, which has final say, will conduct a public hearing Oct. 30 in Richmond on the proposal by retired poultry processor Henry McBride of Harrisonburg. His attorney, John Flora, hopes the project can benefit from a federal tax credit that expires in 2007.
In addition to Highland, wind farms are being considered for Roanoke and Patrick counties in Virginia, as well as nearby West Virginia localities, as a movement blows east for wind turbines already on the landscape in Western states.
On balance, the environmental aspects of wind turbines are “very positive” because they cause no air or water pollution, Flora said. McBride sees the turbines, which would occupy 217 acres, as a way to preserve the 4,000 acres he owns in Highland County from development.
“Nothing else has to be done to spoil that land,” Flora said. “He wants to harvest the wind for the future generations.”
In the East, onshore winds often are strongest on mountaintops, where turbines stand a greater chance of disrupting the ecological balance.
“We’ve got to be more discriminating in the East,” said Jonathan Miles, a James Madison University professor with the Virginia Wind Energy Collaborative. “We don’t have a lot of expansive plains.”
The loosely organized collaborative, which promotes renewable energy projects in Virginia, believes wind farms are part of the solution to the nation’s energy needs but takes no position on specific projects, Miles said.
Many Highland residents who say they support renewable energy have not hesitated to line up against turbines in their county, however.
Among them is Patti Reum, a biologist who, with her husband, Tom Brody, operates a mountaintop retreat popular with birders, astronomers, and other naturalists, that has a close-up view of the project site. They are certain turbines on nearby Tamarack Ridge and Red Oak Knob would hurt their livelihood and a unique environment.
The Highland New Wind project would rise at the 4,400-foot elevation where the headwaters of three watersheds converge. It has flora and fauna not found elsewhere in the region, such as red spruce, sugar maples, snowshoe hare and even salamanders with gills.
Astronomers savor the dark sky, which would be punctuated by red flashing lights on the tops of the 400-foot towers, Reum said.
And the ridgeline is a migratory path for large and small birds as well as bats, which have been known to succumb to the whirring blades.
“Highland County is known as bird heaven,” Reum said.
Birders from California and Arizona come in the spring for glimpses of golden-winged warblers, a declining population that she said nests in the area.
More than 100 sightings of bald and golden eagles were documented this past spring, according to a report by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, which called for additional studies to determine the project’s impact on wildlife.
A survey of nocturnal migration for the developer last fall “leads DGIF to believe that the impacts to birds and/or bats may be greater than other projects in the East,” its report to the SCC said.
Caver Rick Lambert of Monterey said the Highland project is surrounded by caves inhabited by two endangered bat species. He said both of them, the Indiana bat and the Virginia big-eared bat, could be vulnerable to turbine blades.
The Indiana bat spends the winter in caves, then moves to trees in high altitudes for the summer. The Virginia big-eared bat switches from winter to summer caves, but Lambert said it travels no more than 40 miles.
The game department said bird deaths at turbines have been “tolerable to the scientific community,” but called bat mortality significant.
Studies at the Mountaineer Wind Energy Center in Tucker and Preston counties, WV, estimated the deaths of 2,000 bats ““ some 45 per turbine ““ during the six-week migratory periods in 2003 and 2004, according to Peter Schoenfeld of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.
In Flora’s view, the downside to turbines is the appearance. Schoenfeld, who opposed a wind farm proposed near his Pendleton County cabin that was recently rejected by West Virginia’s Public Service Commission, agrees.
“They’re real conspicuous at five miles,” Schoenfeld said. “It’s pretty appalling.”
Rick Webb of Monterey, a University of Virginia scientist whose Web site lays out potential environmental dangers of turbine development, believes serious conservation could save as much energy as would be generated by wind farms such as the one proposed in Highland.
The 18 Highland turbines would produce up to 39 megawatts of electricity, enough power for 39,000 homes. It would take an additional 978 turbines to match the yearly output of the coal-fired Clinch River power station, Webb said in a report submitted to the SCC.
In addition, he said, the mountain winds are at their lowest in the summer, when demand for electricity is high.
The best winds for power generation are off the coast, said Miles of the energy collaborative, where a site about the size of Virginia Beach could produce as much as 20 percent of the state’s energy needs.
No one has stepped up to try to harness Virginia’s sea winds, but a Boston company is seeking to build the first large offshore wind farm with 130 turbines off Cape Cod. That project has generated a groundswell of opposition as well.
Despite controversy over individual projects, Flora said his client’s biggest concern is getting turbines, which he estimates will cost $55 to $60 million.
“The market is extremely tight because they are so much in demand,” he said.
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