Those looking for a sense of closure on the topic of wind energy in
Highland County aren’t going to get it anytime soon.
The State Corporation Commission’s approval two weeks ago for the
Virginia’s first wind energy utility was another big step toward getting
400-foot turbines erected on our ridge lines, but most involved agree
Highlanders are unlikely to see blades spinning this year.
It took nearly 24 months of arduous, lengthy debate and study for
Highland New Wind Development to secure the permit, and according to
the company’s spokesman, there are potentially enough hurdles ahead to
delay construction that much longer.
Since it first became seriously considered here more than six years ago,
the project has been subject to numerous discussions on everything from
property values to the value of renewable “green” energy. Over time,
those have been distilled into what appear to be two competing interests:
Environmental protection and financial gain.
Those opposed to the utility being sited in one of the state’s most rural
and sensitive areas have consistently fought for serious examinations
about how the 20-some towers could impact the environment, including
federally protected species and migratory birds.
HNWD owners have consistently argued the company cannot afford to
pay for costly long-term studies, and shouldn’t have to.
At this point, those arguments are being fine-tuned. HNWD will need to
decide whether the monitoring and mitigation conditions attached to its
permit are worth paying for, and those who feel endangered species are
still at risk will determine whether they should take steps at the federal
level to ensure the most minimal damage occurs. Over coming months,
Highlanders can expect to see moves and strategies as complex as an
unfolding chess game, and it’s impossible to predict the outcome.
For its part, HNWD’s options are: ask the SCC to reconsider its permit
decision, perhaps to reduce what it says are conditions more stringent
than any other in the nation; decide whether it can afford the monitoring
and mitigation costs attached; and determine if the project can attract
investors and remain financially viable, particularly if it can’t qualify for
federal subsidies and tax credits set to expire at the end of this year. So
far, the company has declined to say what it might do, other than forge
ahead to find financial backing.
Highland citizens were disappointed the SCC did not require HNWD to
get a federal habitat conservation plan and incidental take permit, both of
which would have gone a long ways in protecting endangered species.
They must decide whether to seek intervention at the federal level,
perhaps in court, to force the issue.
Here in Highland, responsibilities for protecting the county’s interests are
squarely back in the laps of county supervisors, who must take up the
debate once more and explore options. They are interested in making sure
the project will be successful, but that may mean taking it upon
themselves to require the federal take permit be obtained by the
developer – a wise move that would make it less likely HNWD’s project
would risk getting shut down.
Lest we forget, this project, like any other business, is designed to make
money for companies and power purchasers. Giving HNWD owner Mac
McBride the benefit of the doubt, he believes his facility will address, if
only in a small way, some of the negative effects of global climate
change. But McBride’s project comes at a potentially high price to the
local environment and the rights of adjoining landowners to live and
work undisturbed by the effects of the 400-foot towers in their midst.
McBride says his company has already spent about $2 million getting
this far, and will spend about $65 million getting it built. We find it hard
to believe he would shell out that kind of dough if there weren’t bigger
rewards to come, and perhaps for the family, it’s more about the
opportunity to make a difference on power emission damages than it is
about grossing the estimated $140 million the project might earn. Maybe
Highlanders who support the project cite the potential tax revenue it
could generate for county coffers – perhaps as much as $200,000 a year.
(Ironically, the county taxpayers have already spent more than that in
legal fees generated by the project.) Supervisors, too, may see this as
both an opportunity to make money for the county and a chance to
support making a small dent in global warming.
Either way, all involved need to understand this project is not as green as
it looks. The construction, the industrial methods used to make the tons
of steel, the land disturbance – this renewable power plant still has a big
Overall, Virginians should feel pretty good about how thoroughly the
SCC examined HNWD’s application for the facility. Protecting the
environment – not McBride’s bottom line – was clearly important to
commissioners and other state agencies weighing in on the decision. The
conditions attached to the permit indicate HNWD will be held
accountable for environmental damage across the board if the utility
adversely impacts in the pristine Appalachian area where it would be
built. State agencies, including the Department of Game and Inland
Fisheries, will have virtually unfettered access on a daily basis to study
the facility and watch for problems – something other states and utilities
have rarely provided.
The SCC put the onus on the developer to follow a set of monitoring
guidelines under state scrutiny, and pay for it, over the life of the project.
The state officials who put so much time and research into studying the
application should be applauded for their diligence and attention to
environmental protection. They have set the precedent in Virginia, and
sent a message to all utility developers that citizens here take protecting
wildlife seriously, and no facility, no matter how “green,” should be
allowed to take root without an in-depth look at the potential
The one weak point in the permit is the failure to require HNWD to seek
a federal take permit for endangered species, but could be remedied by
our local government. Supervisors have an obligation and strong
incentive to make sure this project will not violate the law and get shut
down. If they mean, as they say, to protect the interests of Highland,
requiring the take permit is essential. It could help prevent a loss of the
potential tax revenue the county hopes for, and might also mean avoiding
even more costly lawsuits to come.
Whether the motive is to secure the tax revenue or protect wildlife, or
both, supervisors should get the issue on the table as quickly as possible.
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