Henry T. “Mac” McBride Jr. first noticed the strong winds of Highland County when he was feeding cattle.
“The wind would blow the hay away before the cows could eat it,” McBride said. “But that was long before I knew anything about the wind industry.”
In recent years, McBride has stirred up a storm as he sought to build a 39-megawatt wind energy farm in northwest Highland County.
As managing partner of Highland New Wind Development LLC, McBride faces opposition from environmental groups and the task of raising $60 million to fund the project.
“We’ve had considerable expense up to now, well over $2 million,” McBride said. “That’s in legal fees and consultants to make our case for the wind farm.”
Last week, the State Corporation Commission granted conditional approval for the company to build up to 20 turbines, each about 400 feet tall, on Red Oak Knob and Tamarack Ridge near the West Virginia border.
Test Case For Virginia
McBride, 81, purchased the 2,000-acre tract in 1958.
A former poultry executive with Rocco, McBride is retired and lives on a farm south of Harrisonburg.
He first presented his wind farm idea to Highland County officials in 1999.
For a wind-turbine facility, McBride’s site is ideal, said Robin Sullenberger, chairman of the Highland County Board of Supervisors.
“The land is clear, it’s accessible,” Sullenberger said. “And it’s adjacent to an existing transmission corridor from Allegheny Power.”
And it’s very windy.
But Sullenberger had “mixed emotions” about the project and cast the board’s lone opposing vote.
Wind farms are large projects and Virginia had no policy on wind generation. Plus, federal guidelines were sketchy, Sullenberger explained.
“This is a test case for Virginia, a pilot project,” he said. “And I was uncomfortable with Highland being that test case.”
With the project approved, Sullenberger thinks the board must ensure its success.
The SCC estimates that the wind farm will generate about $200,000 a year in property and use taxes for Highland County.
That’s a significant amount of money, Sullenberger added, for a county with an annual budget of $6 million.
McBride’s project faced considerable opposition from environmentalists.
It was widespread among residents who see Highland County as a pristine rural area and “a sort of last frontier,” Sullenberger said.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries summarized the opposition in a September 2006 letter to the SCC.
“We support the use of alternative energy sources, including wind energy” the DGIF said. “However, we feel this project presents an unacceptable risk to wildlife.”
The project’s location supports more than 200,000 bats, including endangered and threatened species, the letter said.
The site also has the highest passage rates of birds and bats recorded in the eastern United States, the department added.
Environmental organizations have supported wind energy projects, but some are reconsidering after reports of birds and bats being killed by the blades of wind engines.
Highland County is known for eagles, flying squirrels, big-eared bats and shrews, according to Charlotte Stephenson, former president of Highlanders for Responsible Development.
“The fact that in this pristine area, these 400-foot structures have to be anchored 60 feet in the ground, what kind of trauma does that create in the area?” Stephenson asked. “These are huge considerations for a community with no industry or commercial development. This is a departure from the things that keep us here.”
While the project will proceed, the SCC’s approval has strings attached.
“That conditional approval is a success for our organization,” Stephenson said. “[McBride] has regulations that his company will have to comply with.”
The SCC specified a plan recommended by the DGIF that includes monitoring bird, bat and raptor mortality rates. The department will have unrestricted access to the site to conduct research on wildlife impact and will develop plans to assess seasonal migration and mortality rates.
With that conditional approval, McBride will turn his attention to financing the project.
“That’s the hard part,” McBride said. The project qualifies for tax credits, but to benefit from tax credits, he needs “lots of income.”
“So we’ll work with an equity company that needs tax credits,” he added.
As for a return on his investment, McBride is unsure.
Wind generation projects bring in varying amounts of revenue, Sullenberger said, depending on the deal struck between the jurisdiction and the developers.
“We think we can get it paid for in 12 years, maybe 15,” McBride said. “That’s not a windfall to us, but it’s a reasonable return.”
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