The Virginia State Corporation Commission has granted conditional approval to a 38-MW wind farm proposed by Highland New Wind Development LLC that would be located along a mountain ridge near the Virginia-West Virginia border.
In the final order, issued Dec. 20, the SCC largely affirmed the findings of the Hearing Examiner Alexander Skirpan Jr., who in a March 1 report recommended conditional approval of the project.
The SCC premised its acceptance of the Highland project, which would be the first utility-scale wind energy project in Virginia, on the conditions laid out by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality as well as the implementation of a monitoring and mitigation plan to protect birds and bats.
The DEQ’s conditions, which were described in a June 2006 report by the agency, concluded that Highland should be required to submit a final site plan to reviewing agencies; conduct archaeological and architectural surveys if necessary; avoid direct and indirect impacts to wetlands to the maximum extent practicable; protect natural resources during construction; ensure threatened and endangered species are adequately protected; and coordinate transportation safety issues.
Highland New Wind had requested limitations and/or modifications to the requirements in the DEQ report, but the SCC rejected the request.
“[W]e find that requiring Highland Wind to comply with the above conditions recommended by the DEQ is desirable or necessary to minimize adverse environmental impacts,” the SCC said in its opinion. “Highland Wind shall acquire all environmental and other approvals and permits necessary to construct and to operate the proposed wind energy facility and shall provide a complete list of said approvals.”
“This project sets in motion a new era of renewable energy for the state of Virginia. I am proud that McBride family land will provide revenue for Highland County, a leadership role promoting renewable energy in Virginia and reducing global warming for our environment,” landowner and Highland New Wind Development Manager Henry McBride said in a news release.
The SCC also turned down a request by opponents of the project that Highland be required to enter into a habitat conservation plan and seek an incidental take permit, noting the findings of the hearing examiner that without such a conservation plan or incidental take permit, Highland Wind risks costly shutdown penalties.
“Highland Wind apparently has chosen to accept the business risks attendant to not entering into a Habitat Conservation Plan and not seeking an Incidental Take Permit,” the SCC wrote. “This is a business risk voluntarily assumed by Highland Wind.”
The SCC did, however, differ from the hearing examiner in one instance in adopting a potentially higher cost cap for the monitoring and mitigation plan developed to reduce the impact on birds and bats.
“We find that basing the caps only on revenue may result, in certain circumstances, in a level of monitoring lower than what [the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries] initially recommended and we find it is desirable or necessary to minimize adverse environmental impact,” the SCC wrote of the hearing examiner’s recommendation.
Under the order, monitoring costs will be capped at $150,000 per year for the first three years, followed by the higher of $100,000 or 1.75% of the prior year’s gross revenues. Meanwhile, the mitigation cost cap shall be the higher of $50,000 or 0.85% of the prior year’s gross revenues.
If the cap proves either too high or too low, the SCC said, Highland Wind may petition the commission for modification.
The final order also includes a two-year sunset, but allows Highland to petition for an extension for “good cause shown.”
The order notes, however, that Highland said it has every intention of beginning construction prior to the expiration of the tax credits at the end of 2008. The company wants the plant operational by the end of 2009.
Highland Wind said it anticipates the SCC decision will be appealed to the state Supreme Court, which could delay construction and operation of the wind facility by roughly 12 months.
Up to 19 turbines with a capacity of up to 2 MW each would be mounted on free-stranding tubular towers with rotors reaching up to a height of 400 feet. The facility also involves the construction of a new substation with transformers and other equipment to interconnect with an existing 69-kV line.
By Andrew Engblom
20 December 2007
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