Visitors to the nation’s public forests and grasslands could find wind turbines cranking out power for an energy-hungry nation under a proposal to be released any day in Washington, D.C.
As this country grapples with the need for new energy sources, the U.S. Forest Service said Friday that it will issue the first specific conditions under which turbines could be erected on nearly 200 million acres of federally owned woods and open terrain. The guidelines are expected to cover such areas as the testing of potential sites to see if wind conditions merit turbines, placement of the towers and monitoring their effects.
The agency vowed to act responsibly regarding the need to minimize harm to wildlife, scenic views, radar transmissions and aviation as it proceeds.
“We don’t want to disrupt scenery or places people like to go to witness the beauty of the national forest,” agency spokesman Joe Walsh said. The announcement was said to be imminent Friday, but had not appeared on the Federal Register by early Friday evening.
Currently, there are no wind farms on national Forest Service land, Walsh said. But wind-generated power on private property is gaining acceptance as the nation yearns to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Nineteen 400-foot turbines are proposed on a Highland County mountaintop in an application before the Virginia State Corporation Commission.
The Forest Service’s pending announcement doesn’t mean giant windmills will appear next year on the peaks north of Roanoke and Blacksburg in what many see as a natural sanctuary.
That’s because progress toward a new home amid nature for wind power can’t begin until after public comment is taken and addressed. Further, the environmental studies required to greenlight a new wind farm could take years.
Moreover, the expected guidelines aren’t really a policy reversal, because wind towers are already allowable with a special-use permit, though no company has one yet. Still, a company has asked to put turbines in the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont.
The Forest Service territory isn’t a stranger to commercial development. Some areas host mining, energy and agricultural industries, which coexist with recreational users.
An officer of the Sierra Club, which both supports renewable energy and protection of the natural environment, called the drafting of guidelines an important balancing act after learning about them from a reporter. “This is the crux of a national dilemma, which is the need for alternative sources of energy and, at the same time, we can’t do it absolutely at the expense of our natural resources,” said David Hamilton, the club’s national energy director, in Washington.
One of the largest blocks of national Forest Service land in the East lies only miles away for many Western Virginia residents and is identified in a Department of Energy study as having enough wind to make power. George Washington National Forest and Jefferson National Forest, which spill over into West Virginia and Kentucky, cover 1.8 million acres.
But Rick Webb, a senior scientist at the University of Virginia, said those wind assets are relatively small. “I’m skeptical that the benefits of development on Appalachian ridges is worth the environmental costs. These ridgelines represent what remains for the most part of our wild landscape,” Webb said.
From the wind-energy industry’s perspective, new guidelines, if approved, are unlikely to trigger an immediate flood of wind-farm proposals.
“There’s so much else going on currently in the pipeline,” said Laurie Jodziewicz, a policy specialist with the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group for 1,100 companies and organizations that see potential for harvesting meaningful amounts of electricity from the wind.
Wind currently provides less than 1 percent of the nation’s electrical energy, but some states are setting targets of 10 percent and even 20 percent in future years.
Eventually, interest in siting projects on U.S. Forest Service property could rise, Jodziewicz said, assuming developers can find windy spots, buyers for the power and the money needed for environmental reviews. Stringent environmental controls dictated by the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005, are expected to apply, she said.
“These proposed policies respond to the nation’s growing need to develop renewable energy sources while also ensuring the protection of wildlife, scenery and other natural resources,” said Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell in a prepared statement released Sept. 13. “This clarified guidance for the agency is based on carefully reviewed science and will offer our local officials better tools regarding wind energy facilities and procedures.”
By Jeff Sturgeon
22 September 2007
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