Jonathan Miles and Rick Webb disagree when it comes to the viability of wind energy on the ridgelines of Virginia.
Miles is a sciences and technology professor at James Madison University, Harrisonburg, on sabbatical to work on wind energy issues with the Department of Energy. Webb is a Mustoe resident and senior scientist at the University of Virginia and a member of the National Academies committee which addressed the environmental impacts of wind projects in the mid-Appalachian region.
Miles highlighted the difference in opinion on the second day of the Virginia Wind Energy Collaborative Symposium June 19 in Harrisonburg. He read, from an online news source he intercepted the night before the symposium, the following statement by Webb: “‘This symposium is sponsored by the VWEC, a state and federally funded organization that purports to promote balanced development of wind generated energy in Virginia; the symposium, however, is remarkably unbalanced; it seems that the purpose of this symposium is to discount legitimate concerns about wind developments on Virginia’s mountain ridges, to promote unrealistic expectations for wind energy, and to foster a political climate that will favor additional mandates and incentives for the wind industry while reducing environmental review requirements. It is disappointing that government and a state university have chosen to support and participate in this biased treatment of an increasingly important issue.'”
“Now I’m a professor,” Miles told the group assembled for lunch last week. “I have a thick skin and I am certainly open to criticism and alternative viewpoints, but this was a quote from a listserv that was distributed two nights ago before we met and before we heard the panelists. I take umbrage by the remarks. I am happy to hear them – we are all happy to hear criticisms – but I’ll tell you that if my students were to come to class on the first day in August or September and a couple of days later submit my course evaluation, I’d be pretty upset by that. I thought twice and a third time before I shared those comments with you, but I think it is important to hear those, it is certainly important to all of us to hear the viewpoints.
“I don’t think this copy could have been any more accurate in describing the importance of developing communities and bringing all the different people together from the private sector, the public sector and so on,” Miles continued. “But I would offer many of us if not most do and will continue to engage (the wind power issue) as a base of our energy future. It will remain controversial, numerous viewpoints will prevail or will certainly be discussed, and likewise many of us do and will continue to engage in informing and educating others, like us and some very different from us … in these important attributes, persistence, civility, objectivity, and to be well informed will serve us better as we reach toward our common goal of a cleaner and better diversified, economically prudent and more reliable energy future for the commonwealth. The experts have spoken.
“The 20 percent wind energy by 2030 report has been released,” he said. “It represents a roadmap to a very bright future for the next generation in terms of energy supply, in terms of jobs, in terms of opportunities, and we know that when power presents risks I hope you all take away (from) this set of presentations that there are risks and I hope that you take away that we are seriously striving to manage those risks. Wind power will bring the potential for enormous benefits, the development of the industry in Virginia will require cooperation among a wide range of stakeholders and I challenge those of you who have participated here in this symposium to indeed practice persistence and civility, to keep the dialog alive and fresh and help us to ensure that the conversation is open to all parties who wish to engage in a factual (discussion) every single time.”
This week, Webb responded. “Miles establishes himself as the one who determines what the facts are. What he doesn’t emphasize with the 20 percent by 2030 roadmap is that in Virginia 90 percent of wind resources are offshore,” he told The Recorder Wednesday. “Electricity benefits are outweighed by the environmental and other costs of ridgeline development.
“It’s my understanding that ridgeline development creates environmental problems much greater than elsewhere … There is a real deception going on that we can get 20 percent of energy from wind when most of that estimate is based on offshore wind,” Webb concluded.
Conferees learned at the symposium that offshore wind was not economically viable at present, costing on average two to three times as much to build as onshore wind.
“On the one hand they seem pretty angry, on the other hand they seem to want to listen to all points of view,” Webb said. “They seem to be wiling to listen to other views if they control the dialog. The last thing they want to hear is someone who can articulate those (environmental and other) concerns.”
The flyer distributed at the conference, “Overstated benefits and understated costs,” was authored by Webb and Dan Boone, both of Virginia Wind, an organization that reports on wind turbine development plans in Virginia at www.VaWind.org.
The flyer was distributed to attendees at the VWEC symposium on the first day by one of the people attending the meetings.
“Wind energy is expensive and dependent on subsidies and incentives, it provides relatively little in terms of energy and air quality benefits, it has significant wildlife impacts, and its development threatens or remaining wild landscape,” the flyer asserts.
Yet symposium speakers agreed only that wind power relied highly on subsidies and incentives. Speaker consensus at the symposium was that onshore wind provided an economical way to provide a significant portion of electricity to the nation with a minimum of environmental damage. Speakers acknowledged that the goal of providing 20 percent of the nation’s electricity by 2030 would be difficult, though not impossible, to achieve.
The flyer says, “Because wind energy is diffuse and intermittent, very large numbers of turbines and many miles of ridgeline are required to provide even small amounts of electricity.” Symposium speakers also agreed this is true, wind turbine facilities use up a lot of land. They also agreed that wind power could never be the sole source of America’s energy needs, that other sources would still be required.
The flyer argues wind projects on Appalachian ridges almost always require “extensive forest clearing for turbine sites, access roads, and transmission corridors.” Highland New Wind Development attorney John Flora said the Highland project would be built on land that was already open meadow, requiring little or no forest clearing to accomplish.
Panelists at the symposium did not say other onshore sites in Virginia, such as the George Washington National Forest site, would not require forest clearing. Panelists agreed forest fragmentation was a concern.
“Wind projects on forested Appalachian ridges have the highest bird and bat fatalities documented worldwide,” the flyer says. One panelist, Matt Wasson, conservation director with Appalachian Voices, said that statement was inaccurate. Enough studies have not been conducted at existing Appalachian facilities to make that statement, he said. Flora and others think post-construction studies will either prove or disprove the wildlife impacts of wind turbines in Appalachia, not pre-construction studies.
“Wind energy proponents insist that wind energy development is essential if the nation is to achieve energy independence,” the flyer says.
Panelists agreed wind is a component of reducing America’s energy dependence on imported energy.
The connection made between wind turbines and foreign oil dependence, quoted in the flyer as originating from the mission statement of FreedomWorks, LLC, the company that proposes to construct 131 turbines in Virginia, is countered with the flyer’s assertion that “very little oil is used for generating electricity, and much of that is refinery residue.”
Little mention was made at the symposium of the effect of wind power on foreign oil dependence. Much of the energy produced (49 percent) in the United States is from coal, which is found in relative abundance in this country.
But speakers at the symposium insist that alternative sources of energy, whether it be from wind or other renewables, are necessary. Specific to Virginia, panelists said few native sources of energy exist in Virginia, making it dependent on other regions of the country to provide energy to the state. Wind power is seen as one native source of energy, but so is solar power, another renewable available in the state, but not yet fully exploited as a source of alternative energy.
One connection that was made between wind and foreign oil is that someday scientists might find a way to convert electricity to hydrogen fuel, thus cutting the need for foreign oil. But that is something that would be costly and is years down the road in development.
If anything, wind power is seen as an offset to rising fuel costs elsewhere, such as in foreign oil. If Virginia can harness cheap wind power, in comparison to coal which is increasing in expense, then that would free up money to buy oil in a more competitive world market.
“Demand for coal will increase,” says the flyer. Conferees did not directly disagree with the statement, holding out that a combination of factors, including partial use of wind power, will lead to less demand for coal.
The key point, though, made at the symposium by those in the business of providing electricity (Dominion Power, Appalachian Power, Old Dominion Electric Cooperative) was that the costs of the raw materials that provide energy would be the deciding factor in the long run. When it costs more to burn coal then it does to gather electricity from wind turbines or other renewables, then the tide will truly turn toward those resources, leaving the relatively more expensive and harder to get fossil fuels behind.
Webb suggests that the real solution to America’s energy needs is in conservation and efficiency.
As some panelists said at the symposium, a broad consideration of the big picture is the place to find the answers to the question – What are we willing to do to satisfy our need for energy?
More importantly, as Webb suggests,, in order to look at the big picture, shouldn’t all the players, including Webb and Virginia Wind, be included in the decision-making process and ongoing debate? After all, they have a stake in Virginia’s future, too.
By James Jacenich
26 June 2008