Another announcement of plans to build a large wind farm along a Pennsylvania ridgetop brings additional emphasis to the urgent need for the state to enact a windmill-siting protocol.
Failure to do so threatens to dramatically alter Pennsylvania’s ridge and valley landscape to a degree not seen since the 19th-century lumber barons denuded Penn’s Woods.
The latest count shows Pennsylvania with 153 megawatts of wind generation, which on a typical day produces enough power to serve 70,000 homes. But under the state’s Alter native Energy Portfolio Standard, at least 3,000 megawatts of wind- generated electricity is projected to be in place by 2020. That would be a 20-fold increase from today and would require something on the order of 2,000 windmills.
While windmills, which can be 400 feet tall, are generally viewed as compatible with agriculture, leaving 95 percent of the land to farming, most of the early developers of wind power in the East appear to find the Appalachian ridgetops offering the most desirable locations. This is reflected once again in a just-announced proposal by Gamesa Energy of Spain to erect windmills along six miles of the crest of Mahantongo Mountain in far northern Dauphin County, a project designed to produce 50 megawatts of power.
Gamesa, the second-largest wind-turbine manufacturer in the world, was personally courted by Gov. Ed Rendell to set up its U.S. headquarters in Philadelphia and establish production plants in Bucks and Cambria counties.
Wind is the fastest-growing energy sector in the country, with Pennsylvania the largest wind generator east of the Mississippi River. But it has strong competition from West Virginia, where wind farms of 166 turbines in one case, 200 in another, have been approved, and others proposed.
While officials in Somerset County say the windmills visible there from the Pennsylvania Turnpike have become a tourist draw, officials in neighboring Bedford County and other areas in the state are not so sure. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s unfortunate comment about majestic redwood trees, it may apply to windmills that “once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” People are likely to soon get sick of them if they become visible everywhere one turns. As regulations – or the absence of them – now stand in Pennsylvania, that’s a distinct possibility.
A stakeholder-devised model wind-energy siting ordinance was rolled out last year, but as we pointed out then, it made limited distinctions about where wind turbines could and could not be built. The industry and wind-power advocates largely have dismissed bird and bat kills at turbine sites as either aberrations or inconsequential in the overall scheme of things. In fact, there is too little independent scientific research to know for sure. What is known is that vast numbers of birds, including large and often threatened raptors, follow the ridges of the Appalachians on their annual migration routes.
The Rendell administration is considering options for broader wind energy regulation, but it needs to pick up the pace. Science-based windmill-siting rules should have been in place before the state began promoting this form of energy, not after.
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