The state Public Service Commission acted properly when it approved a proposal to build 124 giant wind-power turbines along 23 miles of Greenbrier County ridges, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday.
Justices issued a unanimous, unsigned opinion that turned down challenges of the PSC decision filed by opponents of the $300 million Beech Ridge Energy LLC project.
“We believe that the commission did not ignore or revise its rules, nor did the commission improperly interpret an unambiguous regulation,” the court said in its 39-page ruling.
Beech Ridge proposed to put a 186-megawatt facility – including a 14-mile transmission line – on about 400 acres near the Greenbrier-Nicholas County line. Each of the project’s 124 turbines would be mounted on 262-foot tubular steel towers and consist of three 127-foot blades.
Mountain Communities for Responsible Energy and two local property owners, Alicia and Jeffrey Eisenbeiss, argued that the PSC ignored its own permit regulations and did not obtain adequate information about the wind project’s potential impacts before approving it.
Justices conceded that Beech Ridge did not submit the size map required by PSC regulations and left some churches, cemeteries, roads and springs off the map it submitted.
The court agreed with the PSC that “the significance of local cemeteries, and whether local roads constitute major transportation routes, are matters upon which reasonable minds can differ.”
“We believe that the commission properly determined that Beech Ridge’s map did not warrant dismissal of the project as it substantially complied with the siting rules,” the court ruling said.
Justices also said that the PSC did nothing wrong by allowing some key pieces of information, such as historic and cultural surveys, to be submitted to the state Historic Preservation Office after the PSC actually granted Beech Ridge a permit.
“We further recognize that there will necessarily be certain information that simply cannot be supplied until after the process has been completed and is more appropriate for another agency to carefully consider,” the court said.
The ruling is the second major wind power decision by the Supreme Court in the last year.
In June 2007, the court voted 4-1 to send back to circuit court a nuisance case seeking an injunction against NedPower Mount Storm LLC’s plans to erect 200 wind turbines along a 14-mile stretch of the Allegheny Front in Grant County. No trial date has been set in that case.
Developers have proposed a variety of projects to expand wind power generation in West Virginia and across the region. They see strong winds along the state’s eastern mountain ridges as a source of clean power to replace coal and help deal with the climate change crisis.
But opponents, including some local citizens, argue that wind power will make little difference in the nation’s energy needs, while huge industrial wind “farms” will kill birds and bats, as well as damage scenic views. Reps. Nick J. Rahall and Alan Mollohan, both D-W.Va., also have been critical of wind power expansion, and a federal audit found little effective state regulation of the growing industry.
Last month, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy announced that it would oppose all large, utility-scale wind energy projects in the state 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.”
So far, the 44 giant windmills at the Mountaineer Wind Energy Center on Backbone Mountain in Tucker County remain the only wind towers operating in West Virginia.
By Ken Ward Jr.
24 June 2008