The State Corporation Commission staff has recommended approval of a proposed wind energy farm in Highland County provided the developers can resolve concerns about birds, bats and other environmental issues.
An SCC hearing examiner is expected to decide by early March whether to issue a permit to build and operate the facility, which would be the first industrial wind farm in Virginia.
“We remain optimistic they’ll grant the permit, although we remain concerned” about state and federal agencies’ requests for additional environmental research, said Frank Maisano, a consultant for the project’s developer, Highland New Wind Development LLC.
The SCC’s review is one of the final regulatory hurdles for the 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.
The SCC staff report was issued Friday. It said the hearing examiner must consider environmental concerns, but that the project was not contrary to the public interest and would not adversely affect reliability or electrical rates.
Highland New Wind wants to build 19 wind turbines on a ridgeline near the West Virginia border.
Opponents say the 400-foot-tall turbines would kill birds and bats, harm tourism and cause other environmental and economic damage while generating a negligible amount of subsidized power.
Highland New Wind officials say all relevant environmental studies have been completed, but state and federal agencies want the developer to conduct more research before construction begins.
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also want three years of post-construction research.
Supporters say the $60 million project would generate 39 megawatts for the regional grid, or enough for more than 15,000 homes, and about $200,000 in annual revenue to Highland County without harming the environment.
The project is part of the wind energy industry’s expansion from the West to the Appalachian Mountains, where hundreds of turbines have been constructed in recent years and hundreds more are proposed.
By John Cramer