SCC urged to approve windmills; But examiner of Highland County project wants to watch its effect on birds and bats
Worth watching Because the Highland project would be a first, conditions put on it are widely considered precedents for future wind projects. State game officials said last year that the wind farm might produce the highest mortality rates in the East for birds and bats.
The fate of a much-debated windmill project in Highland County appears to hinge on its effect on bats and birds.
In a report released yesterday, a State Corporation Commission hearing examiner recommended that the SCC approve the 19 big windmills.
But the examiner, Alexander F. Skirpan Jr., also recommended that bird and bat deaths be monitored and that steps be taken to reduce their deaths over the 20-year life of the project.
The measures could cost the project more than $2 million and scare away investors, said John Flora, a lawyer for the developer, Highland New Wind Development.
“I think the issue in Virginia is: Will there be any new wind farms in Virginia based on the fact that there is what I call a bat tax that is not assessed anywhere else?”
Because the Highland project would be a first, conditions put on it are widely considered precedents for future wind projects.
Rick Webb, a Highland resident and opponent of the project, said he expected it to get the endorsement but was heartened by the animal protections.
“It is appropriate because of the documented risk at the site,” Webb said.
State game officials said last year that the wind farm might produce the highest mortality rates in the East for birds and bats.
The animals, particularly bats, appear to frequent the ridges on which the windmills would be built.
Highland New Wind, led by retired poultry businessman Henry T. McBride of Harrisonburg, is proposing to build the windmills about 150 miles northwest of Richmond.
Each windmill would stand nearly 400 feet tall – about the height of the Federal Reserve Bank building in downtown Richmond.
Skirpan, the hearing examiner, did not specify a total dollar figure for monitoring and protecting the flying animals. Instead, he recommended a maximum cost of $300,000 plus varying percentages of revenue over the years.
Much of the cost to Highland New Wind could be revenue lost by shutting down the windmills when the bats and birds are most active.
Despite the costs, Skirpan wrote, the project should be sound financially.
SCC approval is the last regulatory hurdle the project faces. The commission is expected to rule by the end of this year.
If all goes well, the windmills could be operating in spring 2009, said Flora, the lawyer.
Meanwhile, at the second annual Virginia Energy and Sustainability Conference in Lexington yesterday, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said the state should be willing to consider all options to become more energy independent.
Among the options Kaine cited were greater conservation efforts and the development of biofuels, nuclear power and wind energy.
By Rex Springson
Times-Dispatch Staff Writer
Staff writer Rex Bowman contributed to this report.
18 October 2007
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