Wind-power companies have gotten a stormy reception in West Virginia, but they say they have no intention of giving up on the state.
“We’ve had long delays before” in other states, says Dave Groberg of Invenergy LLC, whose plans to build in Greenbrier County have been held up for 2 1/2 years. “This is up there with the top two or three, and before we’re done I’d expect it to be the longest.”
Despite all that, Groberg said, the wait will be worth it.
“West Virginia is a very good site for a wind project,” he said. “And we believe that once the process has run its course, we’ll see the project running.”
The state is attractive to wind companies not just for its wind, but also for its proximity to power distributors and Eastern Seaboard population centers, says Frank Maisano, a spokesman for a coalition of Mid-Atlantic wind developers.
“It’s a good place in terms of wind and for energy transmission,” Maisano said. “You have quick access to population centers.”
Chicago-based Invenergy wants to build as many as 124 turbines, generating up to 186 megawatts of power, on a northern Greenbrier County site of less than 500 acres. After more than two years of paperwork, it got final approval from the state Public Service Commission in January.
But a nearby landowner and an advocacy group, Mountain Communities for Responsible Energy, sued over the PSC approval, and in April the state Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Briefs in the case were filed late last month, and a hearing will probably take place in the fall, Groberg says.
The kinds of challenges West Virginia has thrown in the way of the $300 million project may be unique for Invenergy, but they’re becoming typical for wind companies looking to enter the state.
Today, just one wind-power project is operating in West Virginia: the 44-turbine, 66-megawatt Mountaineer Wind Energy Center in Tucker County, owned by FPL Energy LLC of Juno Beach, Fla. Four other projects, including Invenergy’s, are waiting in the wings.
Shell Windenergy Inc., a division of oil giant Royal Dutch Shell PLC, and London-based NedPower have plans to erect up to 150 turbines, generating up to 300 megawatts, along a 10 1/2-mile ridge in Grant County. As with Invenergy’s project, the state PSC has approved this one, but a lawsuit put the brakes on it.
Nearby property owners sued in Grant County Circuit Court, asking the court to overturn the PSC approval on grounds that it would constitute a nuisance to them and lower property values. The judge in the case dismissed the suit, however, saying he lacked authority to question PSC decisions.
The residents appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled last week that the court was wrong to have dismissed the suit. Now the suit has to resume in circuit court.
U.S. WindForce LLC of Wexford, Pa., is behind the other two pending projects. It wants to put up 75 to 90 turbines, generating up to 150 megawatts, on a Grant County site near Shell’s, as well as 50 turbines, generating 100 megawatts, at Liberty Gap in Pendleton County.
Its Liberty Gap project is awaiting approval at the PSC, though PSC staff recommended late last month that the application be denied. The Grant County project has won PSC approval and, so far, encountered no legal challenges. However, it may be that opponents are awaiting the outcome of the Shell project’s lawsuit, Maisano says.
The industry might have overcome its biggest obstacle yet last week, when Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., agreed to remove provisions from a far-reaching energy bill requiring regulations aimed at protecting nocturnal birds and bats from wind turbines.
Rahall, chairman of the House of Representatives’ Natural Resources Committee, had added provisions to the bill that would postpone new wind projects until the federal Fish and Wildlife Service could issue rules for certifying turbines. They also would have required existing turbines to shut down for six months after the new rules are issued until they can be certified.
The American Wind Energy Association warned that such rules could set the industry back years.
Instead, the legislation directs the Interior Department to draft “guidelines” for protecting wildlife from the turbines – not regulations.
“It was a good compromise,” Rahall told The Associated Press after the bill language was changed. “It will allow the development of wind and still allow for a process” to protect wildlife.
Maisano said the changes were a step in the right direction, but merely a step.
“It’s still an onerous provision made slightly better,” he said. “They [the bill’s supporters in the House] will be hard-pressed to find support for similar provision in the Senate.”
The regulatory process functions well as it is, Maisano said.
“West Virginia is an example of how the process is playing itself out,” he said. “The PSC has held many hearings and thoughtful processes, so there does not need to be more regulatory burden on a process that is already pretty substantive.”
A National Academy of Sciences report on the environmental impact of wind turbines was issued last month, though it doesn’t resolve much.
“The committee saw no evidence that fatalities from existing wind facilities are causing measurable changes in bird populations in the United States,” the academy said.
However, there’s not enough evidence to say whether proposed turbines would cause significant harm, it also says. “Too little information is available to reliably predict how proposed new wind projects in the mid-Atlantic highlands would affect bird populations.”
Another West Virginia Democrat in Congress, Alan Mollohan, has also spoken out against PSC approvals. In House testimony last month on the environmental impacts of wind turbines, Mollohan urged stiffer regulations.
“Wind turbines have a devastating impact on wildlife,” he said. “It is especially troubling that the reasons for this impact are largely unknown, and so real solutions to these problems are simply not in sight.”
Maisano says wind companies are committed to monitoring the new plants for years and re-engineering them appropriately. Some studies have suggested that turbines kill more birds and bats at lower operating speeds, so Invenergy has volunteered to study the effect of changing speeds, he said.
“Certainly, the wind industry is in agreement that there needs to be more study done,” Maisano said.
Opposition groups, meanwhile, have focused their criticism on the turbines’ potential harm to property values and small energy output.
“People accused us of being NIMBYs, of saying “˜not in my back yard,'” says John Stroud, a co-chairman of Mountain Communities who lives near Williamsburg in Greenbrier County. “And that was our initial reaction.”
After studying the Invenergy proposal, however, he and others came to the conclusion that the turbines would spoil scenery without contributing much clean energy, Stroud said.
Greenbrier County is in the midst of a real-estate boom, with rich people buying up parcels for second homes, and the presence of unsightly turbines could wreck that, he said.
“They’ll produce a very small amount of power and probably don’t save any CO2 [carbon dioxide], and for 23 miles of ridgeline, it’s just not worth it,” he said. “If they were going to make a real difference, it might be a different story.”
Because wind energy is a highly variable energy source, coal-fired and other fossil-fuel-reliant electricity plants won’t be able to rely on it to replace any output, Stroud says. “They have to be backed up by a fossil-fuel power supply,” he said. “It’s just not a good technology.”
Maisano says that’s too narrow a criticism. Whatever wind energy that’s used is energy that’s emissions-free, he said.
“We’re not talking about replacing coal; we’re talking about coal and wind,” Maisano said. “Any bit of clean energy you can bring online … it starts to make a dent.”
Last year, wind generated 2,454 megawatts nationwide, and each megawatt powers on average 250 to 350 homes for a year, Maisano said.
“There’s a massive need for power all across the United States,” he said. “We will need more power from more diverse sources.”
A market for West Virginia wind certainly appears to be forming. Kennett Square, Pa.-based Exelon Power Team is buying the FPL wind center’s power. FirstEnergy Corp. of Akron, Ohio, signed a deal last year to buy the power from both U.S. WindForce plants.
Moreover, Richmond, Va.-based Dominion Resources Inc. presumably has designs on the energy created by the Shell plant in Grant County since late last year it took a 50 percent stake in the project.
Meanwhile, American Electric Power plans to use 1,000 megawatts of wind energy by 2011. Earlier this year it advertised for two bids for wind companies: one to generate up to 260 megawatts for the Appalachian Power unit, and the second for up to 100 megawatts for its Indiana Michigan Power subsidiary. It probably won’t choose the winning bids until this summer, said company spokesman Phil Moye.
“The bids generated a good bit of interest,” he said.
AEP intends to have the providers online and in service by the end of 2008, Moye said.
With this kind of demand, the wind industry’s patience with West Virginia won’t last forever, Maisano said.
“Developers will go where the welcome mat is,” he said. “West Virginia has not been the easiest place to go, but it’s certainly not the hardest.”
Pennsylvania has embraced the industry, Maisano says, and now has 19 projects approved or in the works, six in operation and one more about to flip the switch. Maryland had been “a nightmare in terms of regulatory morale,” he said, but recently passed legislation designed to make approvals easier.
“Pennsylvania has an open door, Maryland is opening a closed door,” Maisano said. “West Virginia is muddling along.”
However, the need for alternative energy sources is too big for the industry to fail, he said.
“We have a massive need for renewable energy, and if we’re going to address it in a meaningful way, then wind power is going to be a major part of the solution,” he said. “As these things get built, as you see these projects, they get a lot less scary.”
By Joe Morris
10 June 2007
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