It sounds, if not perfect, then pretty darn close. The answer, or at least an answer, to our energy troubles is blowin’ in the wind. But is it really as simple as putting up turbines and connecting them to the grid?
“Wind energy has a certain mystique to it. But yes, there is real potential that poorly thought-out legislation developed in a rush to stimulate the economy or respond to climate-change problems will essentially create a sort of gold rush, whether we want it or not or whether it’s for our common good or not,” said Rick Webb, a University of Virginia scientist and critic of wind-farm development in Western Virginia, talking about a package of bills being considered in the 2009 Virginia General Assembly session that would take the bite out of the process for reviewing proposed wind farms and also provide economic incentives to those interested in creating what are essentially wind-energy power plants.
Webb cut his teeth on this issue with his active opposition to a proposed wind farm in Highland County that finally appears to be at the stage of having ground broken some time in the first half of this year. Webb, who chronicles his case on the rather well-maintained website VaWind.org, believes the proposed development of wind resources on ridgetops in Western Virginia “is not a serious response to our energy and environmental problems.”
“It’s more or less a tax shelter, and it’s a response to ill-conceived legislative mandates,” Webb said. “If not for this mandate and for the tax-shelter benefit, we wouldn’t be seeing these kinds of wind projects on our mountain ridges, because it’s just not feasible when you do any kind of cost-benefit analysis,” Webb said.
Webb has something of an ally in the Virginia Conservation Network, which is opposing the legislation making its way through the General Assembly on an important set of technical points.
“We’re opposing the package first because of the definition of small-scale renewable,” said Nathan Lott, the executive director of the Virginia Conservation Network, which represents more than 100 nonprofits and community groups involved in the conservation arena in Virginia, speaking of SB 1347 and HB 2525, identical bills sponsored by Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, and Del. Jackson Miller, R-Manassas, that redefine in the state code what is meant by a small-scale renewable-energy source to 100 megawatts or less.
For the sake of comparison, your average run-of-the-mill coal-fired power plant is in the area of 500 megawatts in size.
“To our mind, and to someone who found a wind farm of that size in their backyard, it wouldn’t be a small-scale development,” Lott said.
Another pair of bills, SB 1194 and HB 2175, introduced by Sen. Phil Puckett, D-Tazewell, and Del. Clarke Hogan, R-South Boston, would make another significant change to the state code in creating a by-right permit for the construction of these small-scale renewable-energy facilities, effectively eliminating any public comment or oversight by the state in the process from there on out.
“While we support renewable energy and renewable-energy incentives in the state, we also feel strongly about public involvement in environmental decisionmaking. So we don’t want to see any sort of permit-by-right regulations set up that would limit public involvement in environmental decisionmaking. We think it’s real important that the public have a chance to voice those concerns and that the permits not be rubber stamps,” Lott said.
Jonathan Miles of the Virginia Wind Energy Collaborative at James Madison University concedes the point regarding the need for oversight and careful consideration of potential harmful impacts resulting from the development of wind farms. Miles does raise issue, though, with the idea raised by Webb in particular that there is something inherently bad with developing wind farms in Western Virginia.
“Their opposition stems from the impact that wind would have on the appearance of the ridgetops, and how wind affects appearance is a personal choice,” Miles said. “Some people don’t mind it. Some people in fact like it. Some people oppose it. We all understand that. And we all understand that all energy sources have impacts, every single one of them. Coal, nuclear, wind, solar, you can’t get around that fact. At the end of the day, if you want a reliable supply of electricity, we have to decide which impacts are more or less tolerable than the others. But I don’t think anybody, including those who oppose wind, want to see electricity go away, or want to see the supply not be suficient to meet the demand,” Miles said.
“That’s why it’s important to consider wind and all the other energy sources that are out there and recognize that really the best path forward is to leverage all the technologies, and not consider one as a silver bullet, because there is no silver bullet,” Miles said.
Jason Ivey, the vice president of the Charlottesville-based wind-energy developer Skyline Turbine, used that same imagery. “Wind is not the silver bullet. However, if put forth properly, it can reduce our collective dependency on foreign oil and hedge future energy volatility,” Ivey said. “Mountains and shorelines both provide substantial potential to create alternative energy, and require a balanced discussion of natural resources. Offshore resources require cooperation of many interests, and are the most productive sites available, with a potential of 28,100 megawatts,” Ivey said.
“Seeing that Virginia ranks second to California in the nation for energy imports, and will face demand growth in the next 10 years in excess of 7,000 megawatts, it is essential that we consider every viable option,” Ivey said.
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