Virginia approved its first commercial wind farm Thursday along with a mandate that the operator pay to protect bats and raptors from a series of spinning turbine blades now pegged for a Highland County ridgetop.
Highland New Wind Development LLC received authority and a certificate of public convenience and necessity to install and operate up to 20 turbines and associated electrical equipment as a private, for-profit business venture.
The company, formed by retired Harrisonburg turkey farmer and agribusinessman Henry McBride, intends to ship the electricity to the electrical distribution grid in return for payment from utilities as well as valuable energy credits and tax breaks. McBride has earmarked 200 acres of cow pasture for the project out of 4,000 acres the McBride family owns near the West Virginia state line.
The project, which would take nine months to build, could begin operation late next year if not held up by court appeals, backers said.
The site picked for the wind towers, which will stand up to 400 feet tall, is visible from U.S. 250 west of Monterey. Critics, including area residents, tried to block the project based on aesthetic considerations, the risk the turbines posed to wildlife and other issues.
They can appeal Thursday’s decision to the state Supreme Court.
The court would offer a venue for any claims that the State Corporation Commission erred or violated regulatory procedures if the opponents have such evidence, said Ken Schrad, commission spokesman.
The project won backing of the Highland County Board of Supervisors, and Highland New Wind issued a news release with supportive comments from two environmental organizations. Calling the project “an important step forward to meet the commonwealth’s environmental goals,” McBride spokesman Frank Maisano said the company will pay $200,000 a year in county taxes.
One battleground was that the project, while not dependent on coal or natural gas, presents the environmental risk of bats and birds being whacked to death by turbine blades. State regulators sided with environmental advisers in ruling that the project poses a significant risk to wildlife and, for that reason, Highland New Wind must permit inspectors from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to search daily under at least 10 turbines for dead or injured creatures for at least three years.
DGIF and the company will then strategically curtail turbine operations and employ other available technology to minimize animal deaths. The long-term goal is no more than two bat deaths per turbine per year and no more than two bird deaths per turbine per year, counting only birds appearing on a conservation target list.
In addition, the company will owe the state a penalty for any raptor killed, the highest being $1,500 in the event a bald eagle or peregrine falcon dies. The minimum penalty is $500 for a great horned owl, red-tailed hawk, osprey or American kestrel.
Highland New Wind chose not to seek a federal permit to protect the wind farm from possible immediate shutdown by government order if an endangered or threatened animal is killed or injured. That’s a risk that regulators said the company is free to take if it wishes.
Another battleground was how much Highland New Wind will pay for wildlife measures. Thursday’s ruling initially capped monitoring costs at up to $150,000 a year. It capped shutdown-related expenses to benefit wildlife at either $50,000 a year or 0.85 percent of revenue from the prior year, whichever is higher.
Previously released case documents said the project is expected to generate lots of cash long-term. Company financial analysts predicted Highland New Wind could earn an annual profit of $4.2 million after major expenses are paid off in 10 to 15 years. With state approval now in hand, the company said it will begin recruiting investors.
By Jeff Sturgeon
21 December 2007
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