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Experts debate wind project, again  

MONTEREY – Preparations have been under way for weeks, and this Tuesday, the State Corporation Commission will hold its second evidentiary hearing on what could be Virginia’s first industrial wind energy utility.

After months of testimony, the SCC did not reach a decision on whether to grant Highland New Wind Development a state permit to build its facility here atop Allegheny Mountain. Instead, the three commissioners remanded the case back to the SCC hearing examiner with instructions to gather more information, particularly on how to prevent or reduce the 39-megawatt plant’s impacts on the environment, and monitor those after construction.

HNWD is expected to call some of the same people it did at the first hearing to rebut testimony of expert witnesses who have spoken on behalf of The Nature Conservancy and Highland citizens opposed to the project.

A case for assessment

In reviewing HNWD’s case, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, represented by Rick Reynolds, suggested mitigation efforts that include limiting the number of bats killed per turbine, and monitoring the effects of the utility over its 20-year lifespan, all of which the agency says should be paid for by the developer. HNWD has offered experts who disagree with the extent and cost of impact assessment, and will do so again next week.

Reynolds is the DGIF’s Region 3 wildlife diversity biologist, and statewide non-game mammals project coordinator. He believes the utility must be monitored over its lifetime in order to adequately projected wildlife species, particularly those endangered or threatened, over which his agency has jurisdiction.

“In essence,” Reynolds said in prefiled testimony, “a monitoring program is the only means to: (1) determine the effects of the facility on the state’s wildlife resources; (2) assure compliance with wildlife protection laws, including threatened and endangered species regulations; and (3) develop mitigatory measures, and refine those measures as appropriate. Similarly, a mitigation plan is the only means by which impacts to wildlife resources can be minimized.”

As the state’s regulatory agency in charge of protecting wildlife, Reynolds said, VDGIF “should play a key role in the development, implementation, and oversight of the monitoring and mitigation plan. Our staff expertise and knowledge of Virginia’s wildlife, monitoring and survey protocols, and ongoing research is essential to development and implementation of effective and efficient monitoring and mitigation plans for this project.”

Protect the wildlife

The Nature Conservancy, also involved in the case, will again offer expertise from Dr. Merlin Tuttle of Bat Conservation International, who believes conditions must be placed on HNWD’s project to protect bat species.

“Although we are still in the early stages of recognizing, identifying, and analyzing the impact of wind energy facilities on the population of bats in the eastern United States, a recent publication … estimates that by 2020 wind turbines then operating in the Mid-Atlantic Highlands of the eastern United States will kill between 32,818 and 64,281 bats each year,” Tuttle said. “Whether this projection underestimates or overestimates the extent of the problem, past failures to recognize its significance, and the lack of definitive information, have hampered efforts to develop solutions. The bottom line is that unless conditions are imposed on the Highland facility to eliminate or mitigate the risk to bats, operation of the facility will add incrementally to what is very likely to become an intolerable situation.”

Tuttle believes it’s possible to reduce the impact on bats by turning off the spinning blades of the turbines during certain migratory times when bats are flying at the project site. “We know that the risk of fatality to bats varies by season of the year, by time of night, by wind speed, by weather conditions, and probably by temperature,” he says. “It is likely that fatalities resulting from bats being struck by rotating turbine blades could be substantially reduced, perhaps nearly eliminated, by shutting the turbines down (feathering the blades) at certain times during the predicted peak periods of fatality when wind speeds drop below 6 meters per second. Precisely what operational changes should be made and when they should be implemented in order to avoid bat fatalities can be determined only by carefully structured monitoring.”

Highland citizens opposing the project will again offer testimony from Michael R. Gannon, who repeats his concern the project be monitored over its lifetime at the expense of the developer.

HNWD has proposed to pay $2,500 per megawatt, up to a maximum $95,000 per year, to study its project, but only for up to two years after it’s constructed. Gannon says that’s not enough.

“First of all any monitoring or mitigation plan that is undertaken should continue at some level for the expected life of the project,” he says. “The harm and risk to the birds and bats will be continuous throughout the project so there is no scientific basis to stop the monitoring and mitigation measures after an arbitrary number of years. I think it is critical that the monitoring at some level and any accompanying mitigation be continued for the life of the project. Moreover, a more appropriate and scientifically sound method to approaching this issue is to first develop an monitoring and mitigation plan that will address the presented wildlife issues and then determine what the cost will be. By starting with a maximum number first, HNWD has put an arbitrary cap on any plan that is approved that will greatly restrict the options available.”

Gannon points to HNWD’s expert, Dr. Paul Kerlinger, who has testified that other industrial wind energy utilities have not been forced to monitor this long.

“Dr. Kerlinger spends a great deal of time comparing this project to others,” Gannon says. “In my opinion, what other developers have done is largely irrelevant as there have been no well designed and adequate studies. The lack of legitimate and well designed monitoring plans is the very reason we continue to have such large informational gaps on the impacts of the wind turbines on birds and bats. To limit the cost of this study based on the ill designed and inadequately funded projects in other studies can only mean that this study here will be inadequate as well. Finally, in my opinion, the Nature Conservancy’s and DGIF’s estimate of $150,000 per year are far more realistic numbers and more appropriate for this project.”

Furthermore, Gannon said, “Since this project was first filed in 2005 it has become increasingly clear to the scientific community that wind turbine projects on ridgetops in the mid-Atlantic region pose a serious risk to bats. In just the last few months, the National Academies has come out with its thorough analysis of precisely this issue (among others). Their conclusions and recommendations are consistent with what I have stated above. Wind turbines in these locations kill excessive numbers of bats.”

Gannon bolstered his arguments by pointing to the recent decision by the West Virginia Public Service Commission’s order on the Liberty Gap wind project that would abut Highland County. The PSC had denied a permit for the project in part because of the threat to bats. “This project, if it is built, will kill bats and there is a reasonable certainty that it will kill an endangered bat,” Gannon said. “In adopting any monitoring and mitigation plan, the SCC should require an incidental take permit and put a cap on the number of allowable bat takes at 6.3 bats per turbine per year. Moreover, the plan that is adopted should grant unlimited access to DGIF and USFWS to implement the plan and to conduct the necessary monitoring.”

Robert Whitmore, also testifying for Highland citizens, says he has 30 years’ experience conducting field trials designed to assess environmental damage from a variety of sources. He served on the National Academies committee that recently issued a report on industrial wind energy in the Mid-Atlantic. He, too, testifies that HNWD’s proposal doesn’t go far enough and there are too many gaps in the information known about wind energy’s impacts.

“… One of the greatest problems faced by the committee was the inadequate information that has been compiled (and made available) to date. To limit the cost of this study based on the ill designed, inadequately funded, and superficial studies in other projects can only mean that the field data used to support the Highland Wind Energy project will be inadequate as well,” he said.

HNWD will offer experts to rebut the testimony on how much study its project should be required to pay for, and for how long.

A financial burden

Already entered into the record is a statement from Sen. Frank Wagner (R-Va. Beach), leading legislative author of the Virginia Energy Plan, a General Assembly initiative which addresses wind energy, among other renewable power sources. Wagner said, “The purpose of my rebuttal testimony is to respectfully suggest that the State Corporation Commission keep in mind the goals of the Virginia Energy Plan in considering the Application of Highland New Wind Development. I have been informed that the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has proposed monitoring and mitigation requirements that, if implemented, could pose financial burdens on the project, assuming a 20-year life, of up to $6,830,000 … In my opinion, the Highland New Wind Development project is an important step in achieving the objectives outlined in the Virginia Energy Plan. I would hate to see this important first step towards significant renewable energy in Virginia fail because burdens are placed upon the project which would have the effect of making the project financially not viable.”

HNWD also offers testimony on the financial burden from Jeffrey Paulson, who says, “The effect of the proposed study costs depends on the amount and duration of such costs and the opportunity for reimbursement or contribution from other persons benefiting from the studies. With respect to the cost of the proposed studies, the difference between $150,000 per year for an initial three years (as proposed by other witnesses), viewed in isolation, is not enough to substantially impact project viability. However, the witnesses also are suggesting that some degree of studies continue beyond the initial two or three years at substantial cost levels.”

He has projected costs for the state reaching more than $2 million toward the end of the project life.

“At the higher proposed cost levels, there is a noticeable reduction in income which will have a material impact on debt service coverages and investor returns,” he states. “In addition, VDGIF is proposing that HNWD install and maintain a meteorological tower for the life of the project as part of the study process, the cost of which does not appear to be included in the annual $150,000 of study costs it proposes. That additional cost is not insignificant and is unnecessary as wind data can be obtained by the turbines themselves.”

Paulson says HNWD cannot afford mitigation measures that aren’t capped at a reasonable cost, and that turning off the turbines during times when they may be more likely to impact birds or bats could also seriously affect the financial viability of the project.

“Curtailment is typically proposed for periods from late spring to early-mid autumn, which is when the energy demand is highest in the PJM (electric grid) market and energy prices are also correspondingly higher,” he said. “As a result, potential purchasers of energy value production during peak months more highly and will generally pay more for such energy. If curtailment reduces peak production, it reduces the overall value of the project’s annual energy output and may also reduce the average price offered for all the project’s energy.”

VDGIF is proposing the maximum amount HNWD need invest in mitigation measures is $234,000 a year. Paulson says not only is that too high, but it’s also open-ended. “It should be noted … VDGIF proposes only that annual mitigation costs be ‘initially’ conditioned to not exceed $234,000 per year. This clearly leaves open the possibility of an adjustment to higher levels. More importantly, the calculation of the $234,000 amount has no logical basis and no relation at all to the circumstances of this project,” he said.

Paul Kerlinger, who testifies for HNWD, is rebutting statements of Tuttle, Reynolds, and Whitmore.

Reynolds had suggested, on behalf of VDGIF, a detailed monitoring and mitigation plan and proposed HNWD pay $150,000 per year for years 1 through 3, and between $25,000 and $100,000 per year for monitoring thereafter.

“I believe it is important for the commission to understand that the financial burden imposed by Mr. Reynolds’ proposed monitoring and mitigation plan far exceeds anything that has ever been required for any wind project anywhere in the United States and perhaps the world, to my knowledge,” Kerlinger said. “If the proposal as set forth by Mr. Reynolds is adopted without modification, it would undoubtedly he the most expensive and, therefore, burdensome monitoring and mitigation protocol mandated by any state agency to date. I have had extensive experience in pre- and post-construction studies and am not aware of any other site that has been required to do anything even remotely close to what has been proposed by Mr. Reynolds … While I do support a post-construction monitoring plan, I do not believe that a relatively small project such as this should be burdened with requirements that have not been imposed even on most of the largest wind farm projects that have already been permitted in the United States,” he said. “It is my belief that if the post-construction monitoring and mitigation plan as proposed by Mr. Reynolds is mandated for all wind projects in Virginia, it is likely to have the effect of making it so burdensome and expensive that Virginia – despite its statutory Energy Policy favoring wind power – will not be looked upon as a state in which energy through wind resources can be economically accomplished.”

Can’t predict bat kills

Also testifying on behalf of HNWD again is Scott Reynolds, who says it is impossible to predict the number of bat kills likely to occur “because the scientific community does not know the predictive factors that relate to the risk of turbine-related bat mortality.”

That said, he adds that “one could argue that the bat fatalities at the Highland New Wind site are likely to be on a similar order of magnitude as the Meyersdale (Pa.) and Mountaineer (W.Va.) sites. Several factors could play a role in determining the actual level of bat mortality that will ultimately occur at the Highland site.

“For example, the Highland New Wind facility is located at an elevation in excess of 4,000 feet. This fact and the fact that the Red Oak Knob site lacks a forested ridge would make one predict that bat fatalities would be less than at Meyersdale or Mountaineer,” he said. “On the other hand, the region in which the Highland New Wind is located contains a higher density of resident and hibernating bats than the Meyersdale or Mountaineer facilities; one could argue that this could result in a higher level of fatalities than the Meyersdale or Mountaineer site.”

Ultimately, he concludes there is not enough scientific information to provide “what could be termed an ‘acceptable’ number of bat fatalities per turbine per year,” he said. “Reasonable estimates could be made for some of the hibernating species where annual monitoring efforts could track population changes over time. However, the lack of baseline population data on the tree-roosting bats makes a determination of acceptable fatalities relatively arbitrary.”

Tuesday’s hearing will be held at the State Corporation Commission building in Richmond.

By Anne Adams
Staff Writer

The Recorder

12 July 2007

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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