The first wind-powered electric generation project in Virginia will be permitted on the remote ridges of Highland County, the State Corporation Commission said Thursday.
The commission granted conditional approval to Highland New Wind Development’s $60 million proposal to place 19 turbines more than 400 feet tall on a 4,400-foot ridge near the West Virginia border.
The company must spend up to $150,000 a year to monitor and mitigate harm to birds and bats that could be caused by the whirling turbine blades, the SCC said. Environmentalists have contended many endangered species would be threatened by the project, and an SCC hearing examiner concluded that the turbines were a “significant risk” to bats and “a lesser risk” to birds.
The monitoring program to be implemented by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries “will provide significant information on the impacts to protected species,” a commission news release said.
“This makes it one of the most environmentally friendly projects,” said Frank Maisano, a spokesman for the development who was clearly pleased by the SCC’s decision to allow construction.
Maisano said the company supports the monitoring and mitigation efforts to protect birds and bats, but had reservations about the requirement that they continue over the life of the project because of the possible expense.
Rick Webb, a University of Virginia scientist and member of a national research committee that studied the impacts of wind energy projects in Appalachia, said the $150,000 cap would not provide sufficient protection to the endangered bats and birds.
Webb said the project also faced the risk of being shut down if the company does not obtain a permit under the Endangered Species Act that protects companies that have taken steps to ensure mortality levels are within acceptable limits from prosecution.
“This is not the end of the story by any means,” Webb said of the SCC authorization.
Environmentalists like Webb have questioned whether the project was worth the effort. The developer says it will generate about 39 megawatts of electricity–enough to power 15,000 to 20,000 homes. Webb counters that it would supply electricity to only about 5,000 to 6,000 homes.
“They’re saying Virginia now is able to move forward with its first green energy project,” Webb said. “I don’t see how we can define this project as being green for two reasons: the high risk to wildlife and the very little benefit in terms of electricity generation.”
The Virginia Supreme Court earlier rejected a court challenge to the project filed by neighboring landowners.
20 December 2007