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Conservancy shifts policy on wind energy

The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy Board of Directors has made a significant shift in its policy on wind energy projects. Instead of focusing only on a proposed project’s impact upon the natural environment, the policy now will broaden the focus to include consideration of the role of the wind energy in overall energy policy.

This shift appears in the policy adopted at the April 20 Board meeting: The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy opposes all large, utility scale wind energy projects in West Virginia unless it is demonstrated that the power to be produced by the project would replace power which otherwise would be generated through the burning of coal.

Previous policy had focused on such things as aesthetic values, danger to birds and bats, etc. That policy had been influenced by the unspoken assumption that electricity produced by wind farms would, at least to some extent, replace electricity produced by the burning of coal. Recently, enough doubt has been cast on that proposition so that it can no longer be taken for granted.

Any energy production has a social and environmental cost. Wind farms can damage scenic views, kill birds and bats, diminish property values, and fragment forests. The mining, transportation, and burning of coal can damage or destroy streams, cause blasting damage, pollute the air, obliterate forests, and endanger the lives and health of miners and nearby residents. Production of energy by other means may be more benign or less so but there is always some cost.

One of the appealing features of wind power has always been that it produces none of the air or water pollution associated with coal. No carbon dioxide, no sulfur dioxide, no mercury, no acid mine drainage, nothing. Were it replacing coal, then wind would be highly attractive under some circumstances. To determine a position on any project, we would still have to consider its impact upon wildlife and those who live nearby but it would be worth a look.

This is what the Highlands Conservancy has done in the past. It was active in developing siting standards that the West Virginia Public Service Commission uses to evaluate proposed projects and make permitting decisions. These standards were listings of information that a project developer had to submit and the Public Service Commission had to evaluate. The Conservancy has always supported careful consideration of those of the information submitted as a way to allow wind energy development while still minimizing the costs to society and the environment. It had always hoped that a strict adherence to those standards and careful evaluation by the Public Service Commission would diminish the social costs of wind energy enough that it could support it.

Because the costs in terms of stream loss, water and air pollution, etc. associated with coal were always so great, wind power wasan attractive alternative. No matter what the social costs of wind, they always pale when compared with those of coal.

If, on the other hand, the wind energy does not replace coal, then there is less justification for suffering the costs to society associated with wind. We might, for example, more easily tolerate the deaths of birds at wind farms if this meant that less of the bird habitat destruction inherent in coal mining took place. We might tolerate some inconvenience to those who lived near wind farms if that meant some relief for those who lived near coal mines. If the destruction to the land and misery to the people who live near coal mines still goes on whether there are wind farms or not, there is less reason to tolerate the social costs of wind power.

There has recently been considerable evidence presented that for most or many proposed or operational projects, wind energy fails to replace coal to a significant degree. Admittedly, most of the material we have thus far studied comes from the literature of Wind Farm Opposition *1 or that of Public Energy Policy Analysis *2. The engineering literature is difficult and we are still making first steps at penetrating it. However, what we have learned already seems sufficient to ask for an affirmative determination that coal will be replaced as a pre-condition for our support of any particular project.

This new position will have an immediate effect upon Highlands Conservancy action. In its promotion of its proposed Laurel Mountain wind project, near Elkins, AES LLC has freely admitted that no coal burning will be replaced. Because of this, we are applying the new resolution by submiting a Letter of Protest to the WV Public Service Commission. This letter was still in progress at the time the Voice went to press.

*1 Jon Boone, Less for More: The Rube Goldberg Nature of Industrial Wind Developmen.
*2 Tom Adams, Review of Wind Power Results in Ontario, May to October 2006, Energy Probe, November 15, 2006

By John McFerrin and Peter Shoenfeld

West Virginia Highlands Voice

8 May 2008