On January 31, 2008, AES Laurel Mountain, LLC filed an application with the West Virginia Public Service Commission (PSC) for a siting certificate to authorize the construction and operation of a wind farm on the crest of Laurel Mountain, near Elkins. AES plans to construct and operate up to 65 wind turbines from the southern end of the string near Elkins, then north along the ridgeline, to the northern terminus west of Montrose.
Legal notice of AES’ application appeared in the required newspapers on February 13. Petitions to intervene are due no later than March 13. As of February 26, the PSC had received 16 letters of support and 43 letters of protest. Robert Pollock, of Belington, requested an extensive list of studies, to be commissioned by the PSC but funded by AES, with a 180 day review period to follow.
Two parties have petitioned to intervene thus far. The West Virginia State Building Trades Council, AFL-CIO. routinely intervenes in such cases seeking a commitment to local employment. The Laurel Mountain Preservation Association seeks to intervene in opposition to the project. The lead attorneys are Christopher Callas for AES, Vincent Trivelli for the
Building Trades Council, and Justin St. Clair for the opponents.
The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy considered a motion by Larry Thomas to oppose the Laurel Mountain project at their quarterly Board meeting in January. This led to a rather broad policy discussion but no decision; the motion was tabled and needs to be soon revisited
The Voice interviewed Pam and Art Dobbs of Montrose, who are opposition leaders and Highlands Conservancy members. Pam stated that their most important reason for opposing the project relates to the difficulty of wind-grid integration, i.e., the wasteful nature of the project in terms of environmental damage vs. coal burning and CO2 production avoided. Pam and Art and many others (see the article by Arthur Hooton in the January, 2008, issue of The Highlands Voice) believe that the variable and unpredictable nature of wind availability create a requirement to back up the wind component of the energy on the grid with fossil fuel generation.
This theory is controversial, but if true might dramatically negate the raison d’etre for wind generation. The author does not yet trust his own understanding, but must note that neither wind industry advertising nor Public Service Commission testimony in West Virginia has yet included a credible refutation applicable to the PJM grid. The author picked up a publication from AES project advocates the “West Virginia Green Energy Alliance” that addresses this problem but provides no real information, stating that “No extra fuel is burned maintaining this extra capacity.”.
The National Renewal Energy Laboratory (NREL) is mobilizing resources for an “Eastern Wind Integration and Transmission Study,” to address this and related problems. This problem obviously is taken seriously by most informed players. Wind-to-grid integration is not the direct responsibility of the wind companies, which may be why we don’t hear more about it in PSC cases and follow-on litigation.
Other destructive impacts cited by the Dodds include forest fragmentation, cumulative hydrologic impacts, biological impact on bat populations, local cultural and scenic impacts, and impact on residential development.
The local hydrologic impacts are described as coming from diversion of underground flows due to blasting and failure of raininduced underground recharge because of increased surface run-off over de-vegetated soils. Thus the water table is lowered. This effect becomes cumulative as watersheds converge; at least six existing or currently proposed projects drain into the West Virginia portion of the Monongahela River.
The bat problem predicted is similar to that seen on nearby Backbone Mountain where fall t u r b i n e collision mortality in the thousands for red bats, hoary bats , pipistrelles and other species has been repeatedly observed. However, past discussions have included a dearth of information on “biological significance,” i.e., impact of the added mortality on the species population as a whole. However, Art and Pam are cavers, have visited area caves when the turbine-impacted species had retreated there, and have observed only modest individual cave populations, perhaps 200- 300 per cave. Art also pointed out that before the turbines these bats faced no enemies or other major hazards. As a result, premature mortality was quite low.
The Dodds tell us that the Laurel Hill Battlefield lies within 1.2 miles of the turbine string. Virtually the entire string is expected to be visible from the battlefield. This battlefield is the scene of an annual Civil War re-enactment, attended by 4000- 5000 persons annually. These people come for an authentic re-experience of a dramatic historical event. This authenticity will be spoiled if the scene is overlaid with up to 65 four-hundred foot, 21st century wind turbines.
They also anticipate severe visual and cultural impacts at open areas in the City of Elkins as the southern end of the string approaches within two or three miles. Davis and Elkins College and the Augusta Festival in theCity Park were specifically mentioned, as was impact along US 219 and the Allegheny Highlands Trail.
Concerning residential development, not much has happened on Laurel Mountain in the last few decades. There are the beginnings (2 lots sold) of a development called Bear Ridge. There are a number of retired folk nestled in individual homesteads on the mountain. Their numbers should not be expected to increase if the wind project goes through, they say.
A call to the AES Vice President for Communications, seeking responses to some of these criticisms had not yet been returned in time for this article. But some of these subjects are addressed in AES’ Public Service Commission application. Wind-grid integration is not discussed. No impacts to groundwater resources are anticipated in construction. Soils are said to be of a type that resists stormwater infiltration.
The likelihood of high bat mortality is acknowledged but plans for mitigation, such as by adaptive management are not discussed. Negligible “lost opportunity for alternate land use,” is claimed; negative impacts on tourism and property values are denied. The presence of archaeological, cultural and recreational resource is discussed, but we found no discussion of the reenactment at Laurel Hill Battlefield. A visual impact analysis has been undertaken, and the application has taken the somewhat unusual step of listing notable locations from which the turbines will not be visible.
It is the author’s opinion, that while this project disturbs less public land and fewer spectacular viewpoints or “special places” than do other projects previously proposed, the cumulative visual impact of it and all the other projects planned for the northern West Virginia Allegheny region is much too great. The author lives in Canaan Valley and counts 10 projects within a 60 mile or so distance that are either in operation, under construction, approved but not yet constructed, or planned and announced but not yet approved. This is enough to change the experience of simply living in or visiting the area from one of beauty and relaxation to something approaching industrial immersion. It is just too damned many.
By Peter Shoenfeld
4 March 2008
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