FRANKLIN, W.Va. – The Liberty Gap wind energy project planned for the border of Pendleton and Highland counties did not get approval from West Virginia’s Public Service Commission last year, but that doesn’t mean the company is giving up.
According to Pendleton County residents opposed to the project, the developer is moving ahead, attempting to get its application rewritten for a better chance of approval. The West Virginia Public Service Commission had noted several deficiencies in the company’s application, including insufficient information on historic resources, site maps, and environmental protect.
The grassroots effort to stop the Liberty Gap project was spearheaded by Friends of Beautiful Pendleton County, and according to one of its members, Larry Thomas, it cost $87,000 to challenge the company’s application. But Liberty Gap has regrouped and learned from its mistakes, and the next round might cost opponents as much as $250,000.
Twenty-six people turned out in support of FOBPC at the Pendleton County library in Franklin last Wednesday, and to hear the latest news on the Liberty Gap and other actual and proposed wind projects in West Virginia.
Thomas gave the presentation of bits and pieces of news on local wind projects he has accumulated from government agencies through the Freedom of Information Act, personal contacts and media sources. He said he expects AES Corp., a worldwide energy company, to file an application with the PSC for a wind-turbine project near Elkins. AES announced last September that it had made an equity investment in U.S. Wind Force, LLC, the parent company of Liberty Gap LLC.
U.S. Wind, meanwhile, is talking to landowners and getting a few leases signed on the western side of Rich Mountain, south of Laurel Mountain, said Thomas.
On Rich Mountain East, Gamesa Energy USA, a Spanish wind turbine manufacturing company, wants to construct a wind energy project, he said. “This may be their first entry into West Virginia,” said Thomas. The Gamesa Web site says the company nationwide is “engaged in an intense and systematic prospection and ‘micro-siting’ activity and in negotiating land that would allow us to install as much as 1,500 MW by 2010.” Gamesa says it has an accumulated capacity of 1,000 MW across the United States and is involved with projects in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Texas, California, Iowa and West Virginia. “To meet the growing demands of the North American market, Gamesa has installed facilities for the manufacture of blades, towers and nacelle assembly that will allow an annual production capacity of 800 MW,” the company says.
Thomas explained to the group that Virginia’s State Corporations Commission approved the Highland New Wind Development project in Highland County, Va., and that he hoped Highland’s board of supervisors would consider requiring the company to get an incidental take permit for birds killed by the turbines once they are in operation.
Thomas mentioned Virginia Sen. Frank Wagner filed a bill in the state legislature that would “wipe out conditions the SCC has placed on the project.” The bill would eliminate the state review process under the SCC for renewable energy projects under 50 megawatts in size, though there is some question about whether the law would apply to the HNWD project since it has already gone through the SCC permitting process.
Thomas said he sent a FOIA request to the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources concerning a set of criteria that came out to site turbines in the Monongahela and George Washington National Forests.
“They just about bypassed every federal law including the endangered species act,” he said. “How can a federal agency set rules that don’t follow government rules?”
He mentioned a letter he sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asking for information on wind turbines in the national forest. Near the end of his letter, he added that he would like to know about any other developers proposing projects in Pendleton County. “I was shocked to get a letter from the USFWS that they sent another letter to a consulting group doing legwork for a developer. ‘We recommend that this project not be built in this area,’ the government agency said. ‘But if your client wants to build the project we’ll help do the habitat conservation project.'”
Thomas then spoke of the Liberty Gap project. “What it appears to me is, they are trying to concentrate on areas the PSC said they didn’t pass,” he said. “They are trying to portray they are not going to disrupt any cultural things on Jack Mountain within five miles. Some of the stuff they put in, unfor- we gave them (such as a five-mile radius map). We have to be prepared to come back with more or tighten up … They said they are going to have public meetings. I am not aware of any.
“The public meetings will be for people to come in with structures more than 50 years old, identify them to a Liberty Gap consultant, so that consultant can go to look at them and give a report.
“They have had five meetings with the USFWS, starting in April. Oct. 23 was the most recent. The first two conference calls dealt with using models to determine the effect on species.
“I used to work with computer models in public accounting. What comes out is only as good as what goes in. Allowing them to use modeling will really expedite that process.”
Besides a report on wind turbine developers, members of the audience commented on existing wind-turbine sites in northeast West Virginia.
Eve Firor said, “Standing on Spruce Knob, I counted 22 turbines on the Grant County site. The reality is you won’t be able to stand on any point in this area and not see turbines (if the other projects are completed).”
Thomas said in Petersburg there were a whole lot of places to see the turbines – the post office, the cemetery, the bridge. “I think they are pretty visible. We have three ridges going up the county. Put one up in the middle, you’ll be able to see them from both sides.”
Thomas said wind developers were concerned about legal challenges to their projects. “They said they have been very surprised with resistance they have met with West Virginia groups, (especially) the quality of resistance. I think we put up a heck of a fight with the Liberty Gap case and Greenbrier people put up a good fight (too).
“It’s just one of those things the federal government has bought into, pushing it as hard as they can push it.”
Thomas noted, however, the latest federal energy bill did not have a renewable energy tax credit and the existing tax credit would lapse at the end of the year.
“I understand the Southern part of the country put up a big fight about it,” he said. “That means that past December 2008, the production tax credit is not available to new projects. I don’t know why they would start the Highland project. The Greenbrier project can’t even get the decision from PSC before the end of 2008.”
Thomas said the wind opponents might not be able to stop the projects, but they can put up roadblocks to slow them down. “The more you can push this thing out, the better off you will be. This is an opportunity to jump on a lot of things right now and get a lot of things accomplished.”
He said the wind industry is better prepared for the next round of legal challenges and wind project opponents need to be more prepared as well.
“We are talking to experts,” said Thomas. “I don’t know whether we can afford to use all of them. If you think about how we handled our opposition (before) – they filed applications, we read them. They hired experts, we hired an expert. We will not get away with that kind of opposition again. We will have to hire the experts and file motions to gain access to Jack Mountain for the entire 300 days of the application process. We got one day (last time). That was not enough.”
Thomas said the expert used to challenge the wind project had only one day to make an assessment. When he was asked to comment on specific plants, for example, he said he didn’t have firsthand knowledge, which cast doubt on the argument against the turbines.
Thomas said there is time to regroup, to get the experts needed, and to consider every aspect of the project possible, before the Liberty Gap project is reintroduced.
“We can teach people to monitor their own streams,” said Thomas. “We already had a stream monitoring class … do an inventory beforehand, if they get a project, do (an inventory) after. That tells how they affected that stream.”
The group discussed monitoring golden eagles, similar to the eagle- monitoring program in Highland County, as a way to gather data on species that might be affected by wind turbines. “We need to start having everybody in the county report every eagle sighting,” said Thomas. I’m just trying to collect information to throw everything in there plus the kitchen sink.”
Thomas said people need to be aware that if wind turbines are placed in the national forest, they will restrict public access. One attendee said hunters might be a group that wouldn’t appreciate having restricted access to the national forest during hunting season.
Thomas reasoned that wind developers might decide the cost of overcoming challenges to their projects did not justify putting them in and around Pendleton County.
“We spent around $87,000 the first trip; this trip will be a quarter of a million,” said Thomas. “We’ll need a lot of fund-raisers.”
FOBPC is asking that donations for the next wind turbine challenge be sent to its legal defense fund: Friends of Beautiful Pendleton County, P.O. Box 218, Franklin, W.Va. 26807.
Nancy Bowers said she is still taking eagle sightings and submitting the information to the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources. People were reporting sightings prior to the PSC decision on Liberty Gap last fall, then the reports tapered off. She said the information is just as important now as it was then. She asks Pendleton County residents to report their eagle sightings to her at (304) 358- 7580. Sightings should include date, activity, and specific location.
BY JAMES JACENICH • STAFF WRITER
Jan. 24, 2008
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