The evidence is clear.
At this juncture in the debate on whether to build industrial wind utilities in the Allegheny Mountains, there is one point on which nearly all experts agree: No one knows enough about the effects these 400-foot towers could have on our unique and sensitive environment and we should do everything possible to find out more before any more are erected.
The recent report from the National Academies of Science committee on this issue only bolsters this point – one made repeatedly by the people who live here in Bath and Highland and know this area intimately – and should serve as required reading for any Eastern state considering whether this form of power generation is right for their locality.
The NAS enlisted 14 experts ranging from strong industry proponents to heavy-hitting environmentalists. The array of their opinions was broad and balanced; every position on wind power was represented. More importantly, all were highly educated experts in their fields who have solid reputations for scientifically-based research. This is one place where emotional responses were held in check, and the facts given all the weight when it was time to reach conclusions. It took them nearly two years of study, and in the end, the group published more than 200 pages of documentation that said exactly what most people here have been saying for nearly five years – wind power in the East would provide little extra electricity to the grid, and could unleash potentially devastating effects on the Appalachian region.
The wind industry’s reaction to the report is telling. The American Wind Energy Association focused on what the report didn’t say about other forms of fossil fuel-based power and their effects. It talked about how this report said birds may not be killed by turbines as often as they are by cats and humans. It challenged the NAS to do a more comprehensive study on all electric industries to compare the environmental damage they create. The AWEA, of course, will always point to the benefits of wind power. It’s a trade group designed to promote the industry and we expect nothing different than a staunch defense of its members at every turn.
But those charged with taking an objective view, and considering whether to permit these towers in their own back yards, can ill afford to ignore the cautions presented by this report. Proponents argue that Highland County, where Virginia’s first industrial wind plant is proposed, is a perfect place to “experiment.” They say the 39-megawatt facility planned by Highland New Wind Development affords Virginians the opportunity to study the effects this relatively small utility might have, and plan other projects based on what they learn.
Nonsense. That kind of thinking is like testing a risky new drug on a handful of children to figure out whether the rest of them would benefit. It once again relegates Highland County to the status of guinea pig.
The NAS committee noted where information was lacking, but it certainly did not endorse gathering research only after more facilities were up and running. Instead, it proposed more in-depth studies of the wind plants that already exist – ones that were quickly erected long before the negative impacts were realized. In addition, the committee pointed to the amount of information that does already exist, and the need to take a harder look at environmental assessments before any more are built on Appalachian ridges.
We can’t know precisely how 18-20 towers standing at 4,000 feet on Allegheny Mountain will affect the Green Bank observatory, or the fighter jets who use the area for training, for example. But we do know how they could affect Laurel Fork and its tributaries, and the endangered species who are just now gaining a stronger foothold again in this area. The NAS report gives us guidance on how to assess everything from property value effects to wildlife. It is without a doubt the most comprehensive, specific look at the wind industry in the Highlands to date, and serves as an excellent tool for those who have the ultimate decision on HNWD’s project in their hands.
The SCC has called for further discussion on HNWD’s environmental impacts and assessment by mid-July. U.S. Fish & Wildlife, Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the Department of Environmental Quality, the State Corporation Commission – all these agencies should read every word of the NAS report before a final vote is cast on the fate of HNWD’s project.
This is the wrong place to “experiment” with the environment. If more can be learned before the damage is done, the right action is to put those pre-construction studies into high-gear.
17 May 2007
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