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Power brokers issue false claims about power

Dismissing Highlanders opposed to industrial wind power in their county as NIMBYs filing a “frivolous” lawsuit, Highland New Wind Development spokesman Frank Maisano made it clear he expects wind turbines to be spinning on Allegheny Mountain within a year. He also made clear the attitude that drives those who would irreparably harm the county’s future in quest of huge, subsidized profits under the guise of green energy. And that attitude, especially when uttered by a powerhouse New York public relations firm, is utterly insulting.

It was the fine print in Virginia law that derailed citizens’ efforts to prove supervisors acted improperly when they issued a permit for what could be Virginia’s first industrial wind utility – not, as Maisano claims, that the court determined supervisors did the right thing. The justices never got that far. The broader implications of putting 400-foot turbine towers on Appalachian ridges in one of state’s most pristine wildlife habitats and scenic areas were not addressed in the court opinion. The case, as attorneys point out, was about land use, and how zoning should be managed to balance the needs of residents. The errors on which the court ruled meant our officials’ actions weren’t even considered.

It was a travesty, but fortunately, not the last word, and certainly not “frivolous,” as HNWD’s mouthpiece describes.

Most residents of Highland County believe their elected leaders poorly mismanaged the process and, contrary to what Maisano says, not only failed to do their homework on wind energy, but more egregiously, failed to listen to their constituents.

What’s worse is the continuing propaganda issued by the wind industry as a whole – claims that are swallowed hook, line and sinker in spite of increasing evidence that indicates these projects bring a much larger footprint than we knew even five years ago. Maisano and his ilk say their utilities are vital to reducing global warming and dependence on foreign oil. In fact, and in particular with a project here that would only generate 39 megawatts on a perfect, windy day, the power added to the grid does not begin to put a dent in consumption, much less have anything to do with oil. It would take thousands of turbines across hundreds of miles Eastern mountain ranges to even keep up with demand, not 20.

HNWD and its supporters claim the facility will generate enough power to for 10,000 to 20,000 homes, and yet per-capita analysis by experts based on the annual average number of homes is closer to 2,700. In August, when the wind isn’t blowing, it’s more like 1,000.

Developers say the spinning blades would do little if any harm to birds, bats, endangered species, or their habitats. Yet scientists now believe more than 100,000 bats a year would be killed under the current surge of wind turbines proliferating in the Mid-Atlantic Highlands. Industrialists urge us to consider instead how global warming, coal-fired plants, and house cats do more damage to avian species. But as recent studies have shown, HNWD’s project could have one of the highest kill rates on the East Coast. It lies in a migratory path along the Allegheny Front where the uniquely unspoiled area provides a place for such rare animals to maintain their populations. In the last several years, state and federal agencies or study groups from the General Accounting Office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Academies of Science, and others have reached the same conclusion: There is a very real, very high risk, especially to bats, and more study and caution is required.

But the most offensive claims center on the money involved. And in this case, this relatively small facility stands to earn millions of dollars a year at taxpayers’ – and rate payers’ – expense. Wind companies get huge tax incentives from the federal government, and are allowed to “sell” their energy credits to more polluting utilities at good prices.

HNWD argues the project is “doomed” if the company is forced to spend more than a total of $454,000 on environmental monitoring and mitigation. Compared with estimated revenue, that’s a slap in the face to those who care deeply about the habitat and species that thrive here. No one denies Mac McBride’s right to earn money, but to claim he can’t afford to do whatever it takes to prevent harm is just greedy.

These are the issues at stake, and ones most citizens here believe our supervisors never really addressed properly. That’s why they sued. They feel stiffed by the resulting decision that tossed out their case on technicalities, but the real blow happened three years ago when officials failed to hear their arguments, and relinquished control to PR firms, attorneys, state agencies, and court justices – none of whom have the kind of stake in this process as the residents who elected them to represent, and fight for, their quality of life. Most here are not opposed to the idea of generating electric power by harnessing the wind. But they are convinced, based on their own years of research, that Highland County is the wrong location.

Taking a cue from the courageous few who have been spending a lot of time, energy and money on understanding the realities of the industry, we believe the efforts have made a difference. Citizens nationwide now are getting the real picture, and refusing to fall for the false arguments purported by wind companies. They can be proud of how their work has helped to shed real light on this complicated business. The Supreme Court will be asked to rehear this case; it should. But this time, the justices owe county citizens a real discussion about whether Highlanders were treated fairly. If the lesson so far is be careful at the ballot box, we suspect voters here have learned it well.

A note to our readers: Certain financial information contained in today’s report on the Virginia Supreme Court decision concerning Highland New Wind Development’s industrial wind energy project was not intended to be shared with The Recorder. A legal brief filed by The Nature Conservancy following a hearing by the State Corporation Commission was inadvertently posted to the SCC’s web site by the agency. That brief was not for public consumption and was withdrawn from the site within hours of its posting. A redacted version was subsequently posted instead which was used as resource material for last week’s Recorder article on the matter. Attorneys for each of the formal respondents in the case had to sign a confidentiality agreement in order to review the financial information on the project provided by HNWD, and since then, some of the briefs filed have appeared only in public versions that eliminated reference to the amount of money HNWD has indicated may be involved, from its own financial analysis. In short, The SCC made this brief available to the public by mistake.

However, after much discussion among Recorder staff, we came to believe this information is vital to Virginia citizens’ perspective on the merits of HNWD’s state certificate application, and bears on whether the developer can afford further environmental assessments proposed by state agencies and The Nature Conservancy. HNWD has publicly stated it cannot afford those studies. We feel it’s in the best interests of our readership and all citizens to know how much is at stake to draw informed conclusions, and that this information should have been made public all along.

For more information, or questions about our editorial decisions, contact Anne Adams at (540) 468-2147 or recorder@htcnet.org.

September 20, 2007