Highland County resident Rick Webb has consistently called for effective environmental assessment for siting industrial wind projects, and two years ago, he got the chance to weigh in on that position when he became one of 14 experts appointed to a prestigious National Academies of Science committee for the National Research Council.
Webb, a senior research scientist at the University of Virginia’s department of environmental sciences, spent 20 months serving on the committee studying the environmental effects of industrial-scale wind energy in the United States and Mid-Atlantic Highlands – a study mandated by the U.S. Congress after a request from Sen. Mollihan in West Virginia.
The committee’s recently released report has been submitted to Congress, and Webb says it concludes, as he has said for so long, that decisions about wind projects need to be tied to a systematic review process with specific requirements for information. “The NRC report calls for clear criteria or guidelines for making decisions,” Webb said. “We don’t have that at this point.”
After the in-depth look at the specific issues, Webb says the study ultimately conveys the fact that wind energy development involves environmental trade-offs, and the benefits are less than often claimed by the wind industry. “The analysis shows that on-shore wind development will not contribute very much to the nation’s electricity supply, and the air pollution benefits are also very small,” Webb said. “The benefits of wind development in the Mid-Atlantic region will be even less than for the country as a whole, because the region has proportionately less wind energy potential.
“Overall I thought the committee membership was very well-balanced,” Webb added. “I think our results are fair and objective. We were very careful about the way things were expressed (in the study) so as not to spin it one way or another and not couch things in a way that would be unbalanced “¦ We did some pretty intense work on this.”
One thing Webb found surprising was that more than 90 percent of the on-shore wind resource in this country lies west of the Mississippi, compared to less than 10 percent in the East. “North and South Dakota have far more wind,” he said, “but it’s being developed in less favorable locations in the East because it’s closer to demand centers, and it’s profitable due to tax incentives and requirements imposed by renewable energy mandates.”
Although the report doesn’t directly compare costs and benefits, Webb’s personal view is that negative environmental impacts of wind development on Appalachian ridges will outweigh the relatively small amount of “clean energy” produced by wind turbines.
The committee used estimates based on a variety of U.S. Department of Energy computer models to look at how much wind power might offset electricity produced by traditional fossil fuel sources. The data showed wind would displace anywhere from 1.2 percent to 4.5 percent in the next 15 years. “It surprised me that it was so low, and even in that low range there was so much uncertainty,” Webb said. “Given this range, the nation would have to build between 9,500 and 36,000 turbines.”
Due to current regulatory controls, the report concludes wind energy development will not have any effect on emissions of sulfur and nitrogen – the pollutants responsible for acid rain and ozone.
The reduction in carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming, would be up to 4.5 percent of emissions from power generation, which currently account for only 39 percent of emissions from the energy sector. Webb has stated his concern about the wind industry’s efforts to convince the public and lawmakers that wind development on Appalachian ridges can contribute to solving global warming. Webb calls this a distraction.
As to how this study may affect the project proposed here by Highland New Wind Development, Webb says it should be considered by the State Corporation Commission in reviewing HNWD’s application for a state permit to construct its proposed 39-megawatt plant.
The SCC hearing examiner and others have suggested the HNWD project can provide a learning opportunity for the industry, but Webb doubts that conditions that might be applied to HNWD’s permit help meet that goal.
“We are learning more now about evaluating risks, and we need good data to do that,” Webb said. “If we are going to learn how to evaluate and avoid the risk associated with poor wind project siting, we need to properly compare pre-construction wildlife abundance with post-construction wildlife mortality. The data collected by HNWD consultants shows high wildlife abundance at the site, but it does not capture year-to-year and seasonal variation “¦ The trouble is, every year is different, and therefore the brief studies conducted to date do not give the whole picture.” Webb is concerned the SCC hearing examiner will only recommend collecting limited post-construction mortality figures and will not require more pre-construction information. “That’s not the way to do good science,” he said. “If we don’t collect adequate pre-construction data, we won’t be able to perform statistically meaningful analysis, and the results will not be useful. The results will not be accepted by the scientific community.”
The cumulative impacts of wind installations across Appalachia are something Webb says must be also be considered. “HNWD is arguing that it can’t be done, but (this committee) did do a cumulative impact study on birds and bats,” Webb said. “The committee found a significant potential for impacts to bat populations in the Mid-Atlantic Highlands, but found that we don’t have enough information to reach conclusions about impacts to bird populations.”
Webb pointed out the HNWD site has some of the highest passage rates of nocturnal migrants (birds and bats) in the country, and the area is known for golden eagles and hawks. “We know that golden eagles and other raptors are frequently killed (by turbine blades) in California,” he said.
There are systematic ways to study issues like the effects on tourism, viewsheds, and cumulative impacts, Webb noted, and the new Virginia Energy Plan should use them to evaluate potential effects of wind facilities across the state. The plan was recently enacted by Virginia’s General Assembly to set goals for energy use statewide, and includes incentives for renewable power sources like wind and solar.
Webb has previously indicated skepticism about the Virginia Energy Plan because the state has contracted with Dr. Jonathan Miles, a director of the Virginia Wind Energy Collaborative, to develop siting criteria for wind projects. Miles, says Webb, is an outspoken proponent of wind energy who has testified with support for HNWD’s project.
The American Wind Energy Association issued a statement following the NRC’s report responding to the findings. According to its executive director, Randall Swisher, “The report verifies the fact that wind energy development’s overall impact on birds is extremely low compared with many other human-related activities. More than a thousand times as many birds are killed flying into buildings, for example, than wind turbines.”
AWEA pointed to one section of the group’s report that said bird deaths caused by turbines are a “minute fraction” of the total fatalities, and emphasized the dangers of global warming.
“I wasn’t surprised by AWEA’s statement,” Webb said. He noted the association mainly focused on that particular issue, and didn’t address all the other issues like bats and forest fragmentation. “It would take thousands of turbines if we’re to come close to meeting the industry’s ambitions,” he said.
“AWEA has consistently responded to concerns about the environmental effects of wind projects by pointing out that more birds are killed by other things,” Webb added. “AWEA has ignored the NRC committee’s actual examination of this issue. The committee pointed out that there are important differences in species and locations. Mortality of eagles, hawks, and declining migratory species, for example, has more ecological significance than mortality of abundant species such as starlings.”
Part of the NRC group’s study included a trip to California to see a commercial wind facility there. “It was a total transformation of the landscape,” Webb said, “and I’m concerned that’s what we are going to face here, too. It would take 9,000 turbines (on these ridges) to equal the amount of power that Mt. Storm generates in the summertime. That’s about 1,000 miles of turbines. For perspective, consider that the Skyline Drive is only 100 miles long.”
Webb notes the study concluded aesthetic principles are not well-established when it comes to installing turbine towers, which stand 400 feet or more above the land. “We need appropriate siting,” he said. “Some projects are not as problematic as others. I believe we need standardized policies, federal rules, because taxpayer dollars are funding these things. The Virginia Energy Plan is not designed to adequately address these issues.”
10 May 2007
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