Seven years after first squaring off, supporters and critics of Virginia’s first proposed industrial wind farm resumed their public debate Monday in Richmond.
The State Corporation Commission is conducting its final public hearing on the Highland County proposal, which is expected to set a precedent for all future wind energy projects in Virginia.
The Highland County proposal is part of the wind energy industry’s expansion from its traditional home in the West to the ridgelines of the Appalachian Mountains, where hundreds of turbines have been constructed in recent years and hundreds more are proposed.
The SCC hearing is expected to last at least a week. No time frame has been set for a decision.
The review is one of the final regulatory hurdles for the Highland New Wind Development LLC project, but it faces continued legal challenges that both sides expect to reach the Virginia Supreme Court, which would take up the issue for the first time.
With about 100 people in the courtroom Monday, an SCC hearing examiner listened to testimony from speakers who offered starkly different predictions – one of clean energy, the other of an industrialized wilderness – for Virginia’s mountains in light of growing federal subsidies and the state’s new goals for renewable energy development.
The project’s supporters and opponents each implied the other side’s opinions were biased, while theirs were objective science.
State Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, who introduced a statewide energy bill in the General Assembly this year, said Virginia needs wind farms to produce clean power to meet growing demand.
Wagner dismissed critics of the Highland project as “standing in the way” of progress, but opponents say the project should not be approved until Virginia creates standards for siting, operating and other aspects of wind farms.
Highland New Wind officials say all relevant environmental studies have been completed, but the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality suspended the state’s review of the project in March until the company provided more environmental research sought by several state agencies.
Officials with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say the turbines could kill a significant number of bats, songbirds and raptors including endangered and threatened species.
Richard Reynolds, a DGIF wildlife biologist, said the company should be required to conduct additional pre-construction and three years of post-construction bird and bat surveys and other environmental research in cooperation with state and federal agencies.
The DGIF said if the project is approved, mitigation and monitoring measures should be required, such as stopping the turbines during peak migration periods and installing deterrents that use noise and light to keep wildlife at a distance.
The project, which would include 19 wind turbines on a ridgeline near the West Virginia border, has sparked controversy in the rural community since it was proposed in 1999.
Henry McBride, a Harrisonburg businessman, formed Highland New Wind to build a $60 million wind farm on his ridgetop land.
Supporters say the project would have little impact on the environment while generating nonpolluting power for the regional grid and about $200,000 a year in tax revenue for the financially strapped county.
Opponents say the turbines, apart from harming wildlife, would hurt tourism and cause other environmental and economic damage while generating a negligible amount of subsidized power.
The 400-foot turbines would generate 39 megawatts for the regional electricity grid. Supporters say they would serve about 15,000 homes, but opponents say the power would be enough for only a few thousand homes.
By John Cramer
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