Opposition to Highland New Wind Development’s proposal for a wind energy utility here has been quite vocal, but at least two Virginia localities publicly support the project, and hope to purchase the electricity it generates.
HNWD’s permit application remains under review at the State Corporation Commission, but officials from the City of Charlottesville and Arlington County are urging the SCC to approve the company’s certificate to build and operate a 39-megawatt facility in Highland.
During evidentiary hearings in November, Charlottesville city councilman Kevin Lynch addressed the SCC, saying Charlottesville hopes to purchase the power HNWD’s plant would produce.
Paul Ferguson, vice chairman of the Arlington County Board of Supervisors, submitted a letter to the SCC also urging approval.
Both officials point out their localities are concerned about Virginia’s reliance on traditional fossil fuels. Charlottesville and Arlington are eager to purchase renewable wind power from HNWD’s project as a step toward using more environmentally friendly sources of energy.
Lynch said since HNWD’s electricity would be on the regional PJM grid, its power would still be considered local even though HNWD has said its power would probably only be provided to other states. “We can still buy power from (HNWD),” Lynch said, noting he has talked to all the principles involved at HNWD about buying its electricity generated in Highland. “We have to work out the details, but I’d like to see that happen,” he explained.
With a global warming threat and the environmentally destructive processes used to mine coal, it’s important for Charlottesville to seek cleaner energy sources, Lynch said. He believes HNWD’s utility will back down mostly coal and some natural gas plant usage. “At 39 megawatts, it will cut into (traditional utilities’) spinning reserve,” he said, though he added that once Virginia has 500 wind turbines installed, coal companies may start complaining.
“Also it’s important, as Highland County folks have suggested, that conservation has to be a big piece of this,” Lynch said. “We’re looking into that in Charlottesville “¦ It’s important to recognize we need to shift away from coal to other (power) sources.”
In Arlington, which includes the metropolitan D.C. area, Ferguson supports the project for similar reasons, and hopes Arlington will also purchase HNWD’s power, though he has not yet spoken to the company.
“Arlington recognizes that meeting our needs for electricity from wind turbines instead of conventional power plants results in cleaner air for Virginians and a healthier environment for wildlife,” he told the SCC in a Nov. 17 letter.
Ferguson said Arlington already purchases about 3 percent of its electricity from the industrial wind facility in Tucker County, W.Va., and has taken several other measures to improve the county’s air and water quality.
In his letter, Ferguson said his region, as well as the Richmond and Tidewater areas, do not comply with federal air quality standards. “The EPA has designated our region “˜in severe non-attainment for ground-level ozone,’ a condition known to be caused by a combination of two factors: local air pollution emissions, and the flow of air pollution into our region from coal-fired power plants located to our west and southwest,” he said.
One large concern held by project opponents and agencies at the state and federal level is how much of an impact the turbines could have on bird and bat populations, including endangered species found mainly in this region.
Highland County landowner Lucile Miller, who has been staunchly opposed to HNWD’s facility proposal, attended a Charlottesville City Council meeting this week to urge those officials to reconsider their perspective.
“I come before you tonight to express my concern about the recent endorsement that this city council gave to the proposed Highland County wind project now before the State Corporation Commission,” she said. “When I heard about this project three years ago I, too, thought it would be worthwhile because of global warming issues. However, having done my master’s thesis in the watershed that would be impacted and thereby knowing its sensitivity and ecological value, I decided to do my homework.”
Miller explained she had done three years of research on the potential impacts of the project, and attended five conferences on wind energy issues. “I am opposed to this project on several fronts, the most notable of which are the impact to bats,” she said.
“The belief that the Highland County applicants have demonstrated that the risk of bird and bat mortality is very small in this location is not substantiated by state agencies and the radar study. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries stated in their final letter to the SCC that “˜in the absence of accountable mitigation conditions, the project presents an unacceptable risk to wildlife.’ The proposed Highland sites have the highest migration rate of any area previously studied by the firm that conducted a radar study there. I would like to see support from the city for the recommended mitigation conditions,” she said.
But Lynch thinks the impacts to avian species can be mitigated. “I myself think this is a good project,” he told The Recorder this week. “I’ve done a fair amount of research on this, and I think the main hurdle is dealing with the potential wildlife issue.”
Lynch believes any harm to wildlife or the environment stemming from the construction and operation of the 18-20 some turbines proposed can be avoided or reduced. “I think this is a solvable problem,” he said.
Lynch believes the state should help developers get a handle on the bird and bat issue, perhaps by establishing a permitted “take,” similar to game species, giving wind energy companies a limit on the number of birds or bats that can be killed by the rotating blades.
For example, he said, the state could set a limit of 5,000 bats per year, and require wind energy companies to pay $100 for every bat killed at their facilities to the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. DGIF could then use the money to do more research on the issue. “Part of the problem with bats,” he said, “is that no one has been able to tell me how many bats are in Virginia. What is the population?” That question should be answered first, and then the state could determine a “sustainable take,” he said.
Lynch believes 5,000 is a very conservative number, and a sustainable take percentage could be higher, up to 5 percent of the bat population.
“I don’t blame the DGIF (for its concerns about killing bats),” he said. “No one wants to see the bats go down on their watch.” But Lynch believes there are enough bats in the state to find an acceptable level of those killed that would not damage the overall population, even for endangered species.
Ferguson said he thinks HNWD has already done enough study on that topic. “We recognize that no source of electric power is completely benign with respect to the environment,” he told the SCC. “We support preservation of wildlife, including birds and bats, and we believe the applicant has performed reasonable due diligence on the potential impact of their project. Requiring the applicant to assess the potential cumulative negative impact of all prospective wind turbines in Virginia or along the Appalachians is unreasonable and unjustifiable. To our knowledge, no new conventional power plant is held to such a standard, and yet each conventional power plant produces thousands of tons of harmful emissions over its life of operation.
“Conversely, arguments in opposition to this project do not recognize the significant benefits to human health and the environment, including wildlife health, from wind-generated electricity due to the avoidance of emissions from conventional power plants,” he wrote.
But Miller said the studies by HNWD so far are insufficient. “While some state a certainty that solutions (to bat mortality) can be found, Ed Arnett, the scientist leading the research to find ways to lessen the unacceptably high bat mortality, clearly states that there is no certainty that deterrents being considered will be effective.
“Because Appalachian wind projects built before solutions are found for bat mortality are likely to result in unsustainable numbers of bats kills and because of the enormous contributions of bats to ecosystem health, including human health, the studies should occur at existing sites and solutions to the high bat mortality should be firmly in place before new projects are approved,” she said. “Bat Wind Energy Collaborative now has two sites where they have permission to conduct needed research. I believe we must wait for the results so that we can know how to best proceed without doing irreparable environmental damage.”
Lynch believes no matter what the impact might actually be, it’s important that wind energy developers adequately address the issue. Once the environmental issues are resolved, people will find the turbines “much nicer to look at,” he said.
“We’re a big commonwealth, and each of us has responsibility to the rest of us. Everybody wants to see certain aspects of their surroundings frozen in time, but it’s just not possible. We have a growing population, and the demands make it extremely difficult to do (that) in practice. Everyone wants the world to be beautiful, everyone wants to have great schools and public safety, but no one wants the taxes.” Public officials have to “balance all that stuff,” he said. “Your board of supervisors made the right decision “¦ if we can solve the environmental problems, people ought to look at these things as having an attraction to them.”
As for the hundreds of Highlanders opposed to the project, Lynch says he feels some sympathy for them.
“But there is a limit to what you can tell what someone can do on their own property. I also think, from the point of view from someone responsible for coming up with (government) services, that having a facility like a wind farm generating tax dollars with little external cost to the county is a good thing.”
Lynch pointed to Green County as an example of a community opening up to industries in a specific area in order to preserve more rural sections. Green County hopes to fill up Route 29 with lots of traffic lights and strip mall development in order to capture more tax revenue, he said. “A lot of localities are in a position where they have to accept or solicit development (they don’t like).”
Lynch says the disagreements between citizens and their board of supervisors are a local problem. “It seems to me this got off to a bad start from the get-go. I believe you’ve got to have all the stakeholders in the room “¦ Nobody likes stuff in their back yard.”
But if Charlottesville or Albemarle County had the wind resources, Lynch said he would solicit wind energy development in his area. If there are class 3 winds in western Albemarle, he said, they’d probably be near the Skyline Drive, which is protected. “But I wouldn’t have any philosophical objection” to developing them there, he said.
Ferguson, who issued his SCC letter after he was contacted by Lynch, emphasized his belief HNWD’s project is a local issue, and he does not want Arlington to be considered as “interfering.”
“We’re a buyer,” Ferguson said of Arlington County, “but only if it works for the locality “¦ I fully support your board of supervisors and I empathize with the tough decision they had. I understand all the arguments for and against (the project).”
Though Ferguson has not been to Highland County, he said he felt the boards in Highland and Arlington have a lot in common when it comes to getting state funding, and both local governments often get the short end of the stick.
Arlington has enough of a problem that if the region does not cut back on pollution, it stands to lose federal transportation dollars, Ferguson explained. His board has already done a number of things to reduce harmful emissions, including providing incentives in the private sector to conserve energy.
Miller provided the Charlottesville council with a list of groups which have expressed opposition or concern about the facility, or have requested more information from HNWD; they included:
“¢ The Nature Conservancy
“¢ National Trust for Historic Preservation
“¢ National Parks Conservation Association
“¢ Virginia Society of Ornithology
“¢ Richmond Audubon Club
“¢ Valley Conservation Council
“¢ Virginia Wind
“¢ Highland County Chamber of Commerce
“¢ Bat Conservation International
“¢ Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries
“¢ Virginia Department of Historic Resources
“¢ Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation
“¢ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
“¢ National Park Service, and the
“¢ West Virginia Division of Culture and History.
Ferguson said he was not aware of the many organizations and state agencies that have publicly opposed HNWD’s utility, and called it a “formidable list.” Nevertheless, he said, Arlington County officials would say the plant is “something we’d like to see” constructed. “I don’t know if it works for Highland “¦ I didn’t know all the facts “¦ Certainly, I don’t presume to know what’s best for Highland County, but I respect their decision,” he said.
Miller asked Charlottesville to recalculate the number of residences served per turbine and to see if conservation and efficiency could be at least as effective. “I request that you write to the SCC and ask that your support for this project be rescinded until the city council can more thoroughly study the impacts,” she told the council.
Lynch believes Highland citizens can come to see the utility favorably, and support the idea that Highland would be contributing renewable energy throughout Virginia. He does not believe a wind plant would hurt Highland County’s growing tourism industry. Though Lynch also has not spent time in Highland or seen wind plants in West Virginia, he has seen some in California. “They don’t mar the landscape out there,” he said, noting beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
If Virginia implements renewable portfolio standards, requiring power companies to purchase 10 percent of their electricity from “green energy” sources, that could mean some 1,500 turbines in Virginia, he said, most of which would be built offshore.
“But I wouldn’t be surprised if 500 of these end up in the Highlands,” he said.
Despite their initial statements saying they spoke on behalf of their boards, both Lynch and Ferguson told The Recorder they were only speaking personally. Both believe their colleagues support their positions though no official votes have been taken in either locality, they said.
Charlottesville council has not officially endorsed the project specifically, but it did take a “quick vote” authorizing Lynch to address the SCC, and speak in favor of renewable energy in general, Lynch said. He predicted Charlottesville’s council may issue a resolution specifically in favor of the Highland County wind plant at some point.
By Anne Adams “¢ Staff Writer
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