After nearly 16 months of examination at the State Corporation Commission, Highland New Wind Development is increasingly closer to its goal of constructing Virginia’s first wind energy utility.
The project, planned for Tamarack Ridge and Red Oak Knob atop Allegheny Mountain, needs a state permit to construct at least 19 wind turbine towers in two formations in the westernmost corner of Highland County.
It doesn’t have the permit yet. A final decision must come from the three SCC commissioners. But the hearing examiner charged with coordinating the application review, Alexander Skirpan Jr., has issued his report recommending it be granted.
Skirpan explained the SCC is confined in reviewing the application to specific points it must consider: The potential effect of a utility on the environment, economic development, and improvement to and reliability of electric service.
The commissioners must also find the utility is “not otherwise contrary to the public interest.”
Moreover, Skirpan explained, the commission by code must consider the goals of advancing competition and economic development in the state.
What the SCC cannot consider is a matter of law, he said. “The commission’s review is limited, as the statutes exclude matters encompassed by any other governmental permits or approvals, and excludes all matters within the authority of, and considered by, the governmental entity in issuing a permit or approval. In this case, the most limiting factor on the commission’s review is the conditional use permit granted by Highland County pursuant to its zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan.”
Because Highland supervisors told the SCC they had already considered issues like property values, tourism, viewshed, height restrictions, setbacks, sediment control, roads, and other points, the SCC cannot take those under consideration itself.
“A number of public witnesses raised issues relating to the impact of the proposed wind turbines on the quality of life in Highland County,” Skirpan said. “Rather than have this commission make such decisions from Richmond, the General Assembly, in amending (code sections) to avoid duplication of governmental review, has placed issues touching upon the quality of life in Highland County in the hands of a locally-elected board of supervisors, and limited review by this commission.
“This case demonstrates the importance of an informed electorate,” he continued. “Voters should know board of supervisor candidates’ positions on industrial wind development in Virginia counties with high ridge lines.”
Skirpan agreed with most of those who testified as to the points he considered, saying:
“¢ The project will have no material adverse effect on the reliability of electric service provided by another utility.
“¢ The facility advances competition in Virginia.
“¢ The utility “easily meets” the requirement of being “not otherwise contrary to the public interest,” in the context of Sen. Frank Wagner’s Virginia Energy Plan legislation enacted last year. The plan establishes a public policy in favor of alternative energy projects “that do not contribute to greenhouse gases and global warming,” Skirpan said. “This policy must be considered by this commission in evaluating whether the proposed project is in the public interest.”
Environmental issues, he said, involved considerable debate regarding the “actual impact” of the project on greenhouse gas emissions. Ultimately, Skirpan concluded avoided emissions related to the wind utility “may or may not occur” in Virginia but that “from a global warming perspective, all that matters is that there be avoided emissions. Consequently, I agree with (HNWD) that the proposed project is likely to provide benefits from a global warming perspective.”
Birds and bats, he concluded, needed further study. Skirpan said all parties involved in the case, including HNWD, seemed to agree the turbines presented a risk and needed mitigation measures. “I find that the proposed project represents a significant risk to bats,” he said. Furthermore, Skirpan said, “I agree that the level of risk to birds is less than the risk to bats. While no one contended that the level of bird mortality is likely to be biologically significant, that will depend on how many and which species of birds are killed “¦ I find that the risk to birds warrants post-construction monitoring.” He concluded the proposal presented little to no risk to endangered northern flying squirrels, however.
Skirpan said of the 14 recommendations from DEQ, two – viewshed analysis and ecotourism – were topics already considered by Highland County supervisors and therefore the SCC was prohibited from giving them consideration. Others should get further discussion he said:
“¢ Assessing cumulative impacts – Skirpan addressed the DEQ’s caution that due to the quickly emerging wind power industry in the Alleghenies, a cumulative impact study should be conducted. Skirpan said he agreed the study would be useful, but impractical.
“¢ Pre-construction studies – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries recommended one more year of pre-construction monitoring at the project site. But Skirpan noted testimony from witnesses who said more studies “would fail to provide meaningful information for predicting mortality.” He said, “… given the benefits of wind energy, I agree with The Nature Conservancy that the most serious environmental impacts “¦ can be identified and rectified by requiring post-construction monitoring specifically designed to determine the extent and nature of the risk.”
“¢ Post-construction monitoring – Skirpan agreed this should include bats and birds, and that it would be reasonable for HNWD to bear the expense of studies – $150,000, or $4,000 per megawatt of installed capacity at the plant.
“¢ Keeping DGIF involved – Skirpan said HNWD should submit a plan for monitoring to DGIF, and that “because monitoring wind projects is new to the commonwealth, DGIF should be given as much flexibility as possible. On the other hand, I can appreciate the applicant’s need to be in operation as soon as possible. Thus, the commission should stand ready to resolve any disputes that may arise between DGIF and Highland Wind.”
Skirpan also recommended mitigation in the form of a limit bird or bat mortality, and said this should also be determined by DGIF and HNWD, with the commission ready to resolve disputes.
He recommended the following conditions to the SCC:
“¢ The state permit expires if construction has not begun within two years from the date it’s issued.
“¢ HNWD must comply with all permitting requirements listed by the DEQ.
“¢ HNWD must submit a final site plan to reviewing agencies; conduct archaeological and architectural surveys if necessary; avoid wetlands; project natural resources during construction; protect species; and conduct the post construction monitoring.
“¢ HNWD must also coordinate with the Virginia Department of Transportation on safety issues.
Case participants now have 21 days from the date of Skirpan’s report (March 1) to make additional comments.
Then, the SCC commissioners will review the information, and Skirpan’s report, before making a final decision.
HNWD applied for an SCC permit more than a year ago, Nov. 8, 2005, after Highland supervisors granted a local conditional use permit in July 2005, saying in part they believed the $175,000-$225,000 the county could receive in tax dollars would be beneficial to residents.
The SCC process entailed a series of reviews by state environmental agencies, public hearings, and expert testimony. Comments came from all over the region – 216 opposed the plan; 93 favored approval. Skirpan noted the project was opposed by a “substantial number” of Highland County residents.
During the preceding months, a group of Highland residents registered as formal participants in the review tried twice, unsuccessfully, to have HNWD’s application dismissed.
Environmental reviews coordinated through the state Department of Environmental Quality resulted in serious concerns about the project’s impacts, particularly on bats and migratory birds, some of which are listed as endangered species. Several reported the information and assessments provided by the developer did not provide enough information to complete their review.
By Anne Adams “¢ Staff Writer
8 March 2007
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