In Highland County and across western Virginia, many families living in high, windy places are becoming increasingly anxious.
Next week, evidentiary hearings on Highland New Wind Development’s proposal for a utility that would harness Allegheny winds to inefficiently generate electric power will be held in Richmond. It is the first case of its kind in Virginia. The first time the State Corporation Commission hears testimony on wind power of this magnitude.
But it certainly won’t be the last.
For months, thousands of people in the most rural parts of Virginia have been in the unsettling position of relying on agency officials to protect the wildlife and views of the mountainous regions they call home. Whether for or against wind power, they’re depending on the bureaucrats and biologists in every level of their state government to handle this case with the thoroughness it deserves, and make their decisions based on accurate information. There will be much chaff to separate from the wheat on both sides of the issue.
Those opposed to the industrial development of our mountain ridges – and that constitutes a large majority – worry that government officials are persuaded by the energy lobby’s claims that “green” power on the grid, even if it’s a drop in the bucket, is better than nothing, no matter how adversely it might impact these culturally and environmentally delicate regions and no matter how heavily it must be subsidized by taxpayers to be financially feasible for investors.
The generic arguments about sacrificing for the good of the country made by corporate managers and lawyers working for the wind industry can easily ring true to those so far removed from the reality of our unmatched natural setting. But we believe the state agencies involved in this debate – the State Corporation Commission, Virginia’s departments of environmental quality, historic resources and conservation and recreation, and especially the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – have come to understand those arguments have no legs in the much bigger picture of alternative energy possibilities.
After many long hours of investigative research, they have learned the benefits of this renewable resource for power don’t stack up compared to the benefits and future opportunities provided by one of the last, unspoiled mountain communities in the East. As new information surfaces, and the lack of supporting information becomes increasingly clear, this economically flawed industry is being exposed for the exploitive operation it is – one that makes a whole lot of money by robbing taxpayers in the form of public subsidizing of its construction, and then selling the power back to consumers at premium prices.
Wind advocates are applying all the pressure they can bring to bear to expedite the approvals they need to build more and larger turbine-based utilities nationwide. And developers have the money and power to press harder at all levels, from local planning boards to congressional legislation in Washington.
In Virginia, the SCC has assured all parties HNWD’s proposal will get a thorough and objective review of its application for a certificate to build its 39-megawatt plant. We’ve seen thorough analyses from state agency scientists, who have asked tough questions and suggested further study is needed. They have not accepted developers’ assertions that further investigation is a waste of time and money. The SCC has provided ample time for citizens to address the agency, and that process will continue next Monday when the public is again invited to speak to what they know about their own back yards.
Will SCC’s commissioners be swayed by the economic and political argument the industry provides – one in which we are led to believe that without tax dollars from wind projects our “impoverished” counties will be unable to provide basic services to their residents? Much remains to be seen.
Despite the strong emotions this project has stirred here at home, the hearings next week will be dry deliberations and cross examinations of scientific experts brought in to bolster arguments on both sides. The pre-filed testimony from HNWD and its opponents is largely geared toward proving or disproving how the 400-foot towers might impact bats and birds, predominantly those that are endangered or threatened.
What SCC’s three deciding commissioners review when it’s all said and done will be reams of documentation from the scientific communities coupled with the comments made by citizens to date.
The state agencies involved have pointed out more than once the real danger in how this case is handled or approved – it sets a precedent for every similar utility to follow, and there are sure to be plenty. SCC officials, for their part, probably know full well they have an opportunity here to not only set an example for other states facing this proliferation, but to protect the residents here who have so far found few leaders who are doing much to address their interests.
State agencies may be living with their actions on this case for many decades to come. That is why they are highly motivated to get this right. And that is why we can still maintain hope that an industry so wrong for Highland will not get a stamp of approval – or at least not get a permit without the kinds of conditions, pre- and post-construction, recommended by the very experts Virginia has hired to do the job.
We hope Highlanders in large numbers and with the deep convictions they have brought to the debate in the past will make the trip to Richmond to provide the decision makers a perspective they can get in no other way.
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