A company seeking to build 19 windmills in rural Highland County, amid considerable opposition, fought for more than four years to get local and state approval.
State Sen. Frank W. Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, wants to smooth the path for similar projects that follow.
Under a bill proposed by Wagner, small producers of renewable energy – those creating 50 megawatts or less – would be exempt from State Corporation Commission authority. They still would need local approval.
“If we are really going to get serious about pushing renewable energy . . . we ought to take advantage of the strength and power of the small businessman,” Wagner said.
He said the bill would not affect the $60 million, 39-megawatt Highland project, which got SCC approval last month – along with strict conditions to protect birds and bats.
Rick Webb, a University of Virginia scientist and Highland resident who opposes the windmills, said the SCC should continue to oversee such projects.
“There is no comprehensive and reliable state-level environmental review of wind-energy projects other than that by the SCC,” Webb said.
Nathan Lott, executive director of the Virginia Conservation Network, which represents more than 100 environmental groups, also had concerns.
“Fifty megawatts sounds pretty small, but it is actually quite a large number of wind turbines,” Lott said. “From a community perspective, it can be a real big project.”
Highland New Wind Development, led by retired poultry businessman Henry T. McBride of Harrisonburg, plans to build the nearly 400-foot-tall windmills by late 2009. It would be Virginia’s first major wind farm.
As Highland New Wind sought approval for the project, it heard some of the same concerns, such as the windmills’ effects on wildlife, at the local and state level, said company spokesman Frank Maisano.
“We’re the poster child for why they need an expedited and improved process,” he said.
The SCC approved the project Dec. 20 but required the developer to monitor the windmills’ effects on bats and birds and take steps, such as shutting down the turbines at times, to minimize harm to the animals.
Those efforts could cost up to $100,000 or more a year over the 20-year life of the project.
Highland New Wind says the project’s 39 megawatts would be enough to serve 10,000 to 15,000 homes. Opponents say the wind-dependent turbines would provide little power in comparison to their environmental harm.
By Rex Springston
19 January 2008
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