The seasons have changed four times since construction began on Virginia’s first wind farm, and there’s still no sign of the 400-foot windmills planned for the top of a Highland County ridge.
Developers of the project – who previously blamed winter weather for the slow progress – last week declined to say why they have missed their goal of having the first of 19 turbines erected by midsummer.
The lull comes at a time when the national wind industry, which had been growing steadily in recent years, appears to be losing momentum. Wind farm installations in the United States have decreased by 69 percent so far this year from last year, and by 54 percent since 2008, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
“We are in a critical spot right now,” said Elizabeth Salerno, director of industry data and analysis for the association. “It’s sort of a do-or-die moment for the industry.”
She said a struggling economy is one reason why investors have grown more reluctant to put money in projects like the Highland County wind farm, which has an estimated $80 million price tag. An unrelated preliminary proposal by a separate company calls for 18 windmills atop Poor Mountain in Roanoke County.
Then came news last week that Congress apparently will take no action this year on a proposed law that would require utilities to obtain up to 15 percent of their power from renewable sources, such as solar and wind energy, by 2021.
With the so-called renewable electricity standard in trouble, “what’s happening nationally is we’re seeing an industry that was steadily building itself up … that is just being left to almost sputter out,” Salerno said of the wind energy market.
It’s unclear what impact the national forces are bringing to Highland County.
But there’s little question that outside investment is needed to fulfill the goals of Highland New Wind Development, a father-and-son venture that began when poultry businessman Henry McBride of Harrisonburg decided nearly 10 years ago to build a wind farm on remote land he owns near the West Virginia line.
In early April, McBride’s son, Tal, said work to build the 19 wind turbines would resume as soon as the remaining snow melted atop Allegheny Mountain. The first turbine would be erected by midsummer, McBride said at the time, and the project would be operating by fall.
McBride did not return two calls to his cellphone last week.
Frank Maisano, a spokesman for Highland New Wind, said the project was “moving forward,” but declined to say why there has been no visible progress at the work site.
“No matter how long it takes, we will see it through and complete Virginia’s first wind farm,” Maisano said.
Site work began in August, with bulldozers clearing roads and levelling spots for an electrical substation and some of the turbine bases. But the heavy equipment has since been hauled away, and there’s been no activity since last fall, said James Whitelaw, the building and zoning official for Highland County who visits the site regularly.
The slowdown comes after Highland New Wind spent years navigating a complex regulatory process. The project has been approved by the county board of supervisors and the State Corporation Commission, and it has survived legal challenges from residents who say the windmills will destroy the area’s scenic beauty and kill birds and bats.
The most recent challenge, made on grounds that the windmills will mar the view from a nearby Civil War battlefield, was rejected earlier this year by the SCC.
One of the last remaining hurdles, more of a formality by now, is for Highland New Wind to obtain a building permit from the county to erect the towers. No such application has been made, and Whitelaw said his office has not heard from the developer in months.
“I don’t know what he’s doing, as far as what’s holding him up,” Whitelaw said.
One potential hold-up still hangs over the process. In May, a Washington law firm hired by wind farm opponents wrote to the developers and county officials, threatening to seek an injunction stopping the project unless a so-called incidental take permit was obtained from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Such a permit would entail a detailed assessment of the project’s potential threat to wildlife. It would also offer the developers some legal cover in the event that a protected species, such as the native Virginia big-eared bat, were to fly into the windmill’s spinning blades and be killed.
Tal McBride has said that he’s under no legal obligation to obtain an incidental take permit and does not plan to seek one.
Although the SCC did not require the permit when it approved the wind farm in 2007, it did impose conditions that include monitoring its effects on wildlife.
State officials will search regularly for at least three years under the turbines for dead or injured creatures. If the kill count rises too high, the turbines would have to be temporarily turned off.
The threat of another round of litigation over the issue could scare off already-skittish investors, said Rick Webb, one of the wind farm opponents who hired the law firm.
“I still think the real issue for HNWD is lack of investors,” Webb wrote in an e-mail. “As I’ve said before, it’s simple calculus: high risk to endangered species, plus effective monitoring of wildlife mortality, equals unacceptable risk to investors.”
Once the 38-megawatt-producing project goes online, the spinning turbines will harness wind power from nearly 4,000 feet above sea level, convert it into electricity and transmit it to a nearby utility line.
Developers say the project will produce enough electricity to power 12,000 homes.
While that’s a relatively small number, supporters of wind energy say the Highland County project is an important first step for Virginia in the search for alternatives to coal and other polluting energy sources.
Wind farms also have been proposed for the counties of Roanoke, Rockingham and Wise, and plans are under way for offshore projects in the Chesapeake Bay.
In Roanoke County, Invenergy of Chicago is looking into putting 18 wind turbines on Poor Mountain, where a line of telecommunication towers already marks the ridgeline. Some residents are wary of the 443-foot windmills, which would tower twice as tall as the existing antennas and about four times higher than the Mill Mountain Star.
A local pilots club has raised concerns that the windmills might interfere with flight patterns of approaching aircraft. Officials with Invenergy say they are awaiting a review from the Federal Aviation Administration, which will take months.
Meanwhile, wind energy projects nationwide could be affected by what happens next in the U.S. Senate. Last week, Democratic leader Harry Reid said there’s not enough support for an energy bill that would include controversial cap-and-trade limits on carbon pollution.
Salerno said it appears a renewable electricity standard is also off the table, even though it has broad public support.
By failing to require energy providers to look for alternative sources, Congress would cut off support for wind farms just when it’s needed the most, Salerno said.
“What we’re seeing is a cliff out there, and we shouldn’t be seeing a cliff,” Salerno said. “I think every project out there is going to be battling against the economy and the lack of a long-term policy signal.”
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