No surprises here. The staff of the State Corporation Commission has concluded Highland New Wind Development’s proposal does not pose a problem for most of the requirements needed to acquire a state level permit. The one critical area SCC staff chose to leave in the hands of others is the potential environmental impacts created by the project related principally to avian wildlife.
Since 2001, Highland County has wrestled with the possibility it may find itself home to Virginia’s first wind energy facility atop Allegheny Mountain. The last big hurdle was a state permit, culminating in a courtroom like hearing in Richmond last fall where experts testified for days representing the interests of those who approved of the project, and those who did not. Thousands of pages of documents were compiled from hundreds of hours of testimony.
SCC gave these respondents until Jan. 19 to enter further testimony in response to the hearings, a deadline they all met with lengthy briefs.
But SCC’s staff kept a narrow focus, basing its conclusions purely on the state laws governing such a permit decision. The Code of Virginia, SCC explained, “directs the commission to permit the construction and operation of electrical generating facilities if there will be no adverse effect upon reliability of service provided by another electric utility and if the facilities are not contrary to the public interest.”
State code also says environmental impacts must be considered by the Department of Environmental Quality, and that the SCC must consider Virginia’s goals for advancing competition and economic development.
Within those guidelines, the SCC said it identified six general criteria related to electric utilities: Reliability, competition, rates, environment, economic development, and public interest.
In its post-hearing brief, SCC staff deferred to DEQ on the environmental issues.
“The staff readily acknowledges that numerous questions about the environmental impact of the project “¦ have been raised,” they wrote. “The staff recognizes that these environmental issues are significant, and they must be addressed by the commission.”
SCC had directed a DEQ review, and under agency head Michael Murphy, a report on potential environmental impacts was prepared last year.
During the evidentiary hearings, DEQ and other agencies testified on the pending permit decision. Therefore, SCC did not take environmental issues under consideration, leaving that to HNWD and its opposing respondents to sort out. SCC made one exception, however.
“The staff supports restoration of the turbine sites,” the brief explained.
The conditional use permit granted to HNWD included three conditions for removing the turbines if they became abandoned. SCC staffers noted if the commission grants a state permit, those same conditions should be attached at the state level.
Two SCC witnesses, Gregory Abbott and Lawrence Oliver, had testified they considered the “technical competency” of HNWD and the financial needs of the company, SCC noted. “Both staff witnesses concluded that the company and its contractors could construct and operate the facility. Mr. Abbott determined that the project would enter in the competitive power market and that no impact on reliability or rates would be anticipated. There was no evidence to the contrary on any of these staff conclusions.
Abbott had said HNWD’s proposal depended on getting federal production tax credits, which had been slated to expire at the end of 2007. Those credits were extended on the federal level to Jan. 1, 2009 as an amendment in the Tax Relief and Health Care Act on Dec. 20, 2006.
Another SCC witness, Mark K. Carsley, had addressed the potential economic benefit of HNWD’s project, and concluded “the primary benefit would be the additional tax revenue for Highland County,” the brief states. “He also considered the economic benefits of project construction and the potential, moderate benefits of future operation of Highland’s facility.”
SCC also pointed out that ” numerous public witnesses addressed the impact of the project on tourism and other development in Highland County,” but those issues had already been considered by Highland supervisors when it granted the county permit.
SCC staff said Virginia law requires the SCC to permit utilities that will have no “material adverse affect” on electric service from any utility, and is not “otherwise contrary to the public interest.”
Therefore, SCC concluded HNWD’s project meets those conditions and if commissioners agree, then the SCC “is bound by law to approve the facility,” staff said.
“The record indicates that power from the facility will likely be used out of state, and the “˜green credits’ produced by the facility will most probably be purchased by out of state interests also. The record further indicates that if the facility was located in Maryland, it would generate greater environmental benefits than at its proposed location in Highland County. Given these circumstances, staff does not believe the record herein necessarily supports a finding that the wind facility is in the public interest, only that it is “˜not contrary’ to the public interest.
SCC staff offered Abbott’s hearing statement in their conclusion: “Aside from environmental issues, the staff believes that the HNWD project generally meets the criteria delineated in (the Code of Virginia). Consequently, the staff recommends approval of HNWD’s request for a (permit). However, staff’s recommendation is conditioned upon the commission’s final disposition of the environmental issues raised in this case.”
By Anne Adams “¢ Staff Writer
January 25, 2007
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