FRANKLIN, W.Va. – Once again, the Allegheny Highlands is gearing up to debate the merits of commercial wind energy – this time for a project on Shenandoah Mountain.
Solaya Energy LLC has been monitoring wind resources along a five-mile stretch of the ridgeline there to determine whether it‟s a good site for roughly 23-25 industrial wind towers. At this point, the company believes the location has strong potential.
The ridge site, Cow Knob, follows the Virginia/West Virginia state border between Rockingham County, Va., and Pendleton County, W.Va., below Ft. Seybert near the Hardy County, W.Va. line.
Following the Highland New Wind Development LLC project in Virginia, which has so far languished without construction, Solaya could be the second corporation to seek a state certificate for an industrial wind project in this area of Virginia.
Following the 2006-07 attempt of U.S. Wind Force to establish its Liberty Gap project, which has also now languished, Solaya’s plans would make the second time a company has seriously pursued a project in Pendleton, which adjoins Highland County to the north.
Rockingham County, northeast of Highland, was one of the first localities in Virginia to create a local ordinance regulating wind energy facilities. Solaya, based in Wilmington, Mass., came to Pendleton Tuesday to request that county put an ordinance in place, too, so it knows what kinds of regulations would be involved.
There are plenty of similarities between the Cow Knob proposal and previous Virginia and West Virginia wind plans, but also some marked differences.
Solaya Energy was chosen by a group of roughly 50 people, mostly family members, who own the stretch of land on Cow Knob. They sought out a wind developer, and though Solaya has not built a wind project this large before, they felt the company would work closely with them and protect their interests.
Dan Smith, one of the group’s five-member board, explained Cow Knob has been farmed for generations, but due to the tough economic times, family members are afraid of losing it, or having to sell. The group, he said, consists mostly of relatives descended or married into the Turner family, which has owned the property since 1862. “This land remains largely in the hands of those ancestors,” he said, “and they want it to remain in their hands; it’s their heritage.”
Smith said the family is pleased with its relationship with Solaya. “The board of Cow Knob works closely with them… if feasible, the land will continue to be farmed for generations. The revenue from this will allow landowners to invest more in the land – more crops, fertilization. The majority of us are concerned our children won’t be able to hold onto the land.”
Another family member, Wayne Brady, spoke on behalf of his elderly parents. “My parents worked hard to keep this land but if their health declines, we may have to sell it off. Our hope is that the wind turbine revenue will help care for them in their later years, and help keep the land in the family.”
Valerie Miller said her family is another landowner on Cow Knob, with half their land in Rockingham and half in Pendleton. They run beef cattle, and live on the farm where her husband‟s mother owns most of the land. “This will help keep her out of a nursing home,” she said, choking up. “Without it, we will have to sell what we love. We already have a daughter in college we can’t support,” she added.
Another family member noted his children are fifth-generation farmers on Cow Knob. “We don’t want to destroy this land,” he said. “We want to maintain its integrity. Hopefully, we’ll be blessed with wind sufficient to make this viable … I want to be responsible in the process and do it right. An ordinance is important, to know we’re doing it correctly.”
Solaya Energy manager Bill Rogers was on hand to answer questions, along with Pendleton County Commissioners Carl Hevener, Judy Hott, and Gene McConnell.
“We are honored they chose us,” Rogers told the roughly 100 people gathered. “They have a unique spot … it’s been cleared (from farming); a transmission tie in is already there; and it’s surrounded by national forest.”
Rogers explained Solaya has done nothing beyond monitoring and assessing the site‟s suitability so far. While there’s no requirement for a local permit, Rogers said the company and landowners wanted to get input from residents about the plans.
Solaya has had three meteorological towers in place for about two years, he said, and now has enough information for a feasibility study, which the company will pay for. “We want to do this the right way,” Rogers said.
Six letters were sent to the Pendleton commission, all of which expressed opposition to Solaya’s plans. Each said an industrial facility in that location would be “devastating” or “hideous,” and degrading to the landscape and environment.
When invited to address the commission and Solaya representatives, nearly 20 people did so – each was opposed to developing Shenandoah’s ridgeline for the project.
The same concerns that have surfaced in previous discussions on wind energy in this region arose again Tuesday night – property values, endangered species, scenic beauty of the area, water resources, roads, and the costs and benefits involved for the county, its citizens, and taxpayers.
Several speakers this week were strongly opposed to subsidies and grant money supporting the wind industry – taxpayer dollars. “Industrial wind power exists only because of government financing,” said Charlie Bates. “Solaya could have 30 percent of its costs paid by a government grant; that’s 30 percent of millions – from our pockets and our children’s pockets. Years from now, our grandchildren will still be paying for this scam … Whatever crumbs thrown at Pendleton County will come on the backs of taxpayers. The developers will laugh all the way to the bank – that‟s the only “green” part of the whole wretched fraud.”
Many also spoke to the lack of regulations dictating liabilities and costs associated with wind projects once they are out of service. “No clear rules exist,” warned Frank O‟Hara of Keyser, W.Va. Without a legal contract in place between the developer and the county, he said, there are only promises – “words carved into a block of ice that will just melt away,” he said.
Walter Pitsenbarger, an attorney, of Moyers, cautioned the landowners to get solid legal and financial advice. “You need a really smart lawyer … you need to make sure the income you‟re promised is legitimate. Look at it. Get an auditor or a consultant. You‟re going to get dead windmills … they are lying to you,” he told them.
Kent and Paula Baake, who own property overlooking the project site, spoke to the scenic beauty of Pendleton. “This area’s a real jewel,” Mr. Baake said. His wife explained the couple had traveled all over the world but “we decided this was the place to retire and bring kids. This is pristine, untouched. We’ve biked over Cow Knob – you can’t see any civilization. You cannot find (anywhere) what you have here,” she added, her voice filling with emotion. “It’s just not around anymore.”
Eve Firor also addressed the families, echoing Pitsenbarger’s warnings. “I’ve been learning about industrial wind since 2004, and I’ve been convinced what other speakers said is true … be sure you’re protected,” she said. “Go deep. It breaks my heart you all are pinning your hopes on something that’s such a sham … I hope you’re not being taken advantage of.”
Art Hooten said the detriments of wind energy are well known, but if the projects are so bad, people wonder why they keep being proposed and built. “It’s because of money, and ill-informed public, and spineless politicians,” he said. “I can’t fault you individuals for going after the money,” Hooten told the landowners, “and I can’t expect you to see the effect it has on every other landowner. But I do expect the commission to take the long view.”
Viola Riggleman listed other concerns such as the native trout streams, noise pollution, the effects on emergency, cell, and TV communications, and historic sites, encouraging commissioners to “do your homework.”
Barbara Dean spoke about “attachment to place,” explaining the idea of feeling so engrained in a place that it becomes part of one’s identity. She encouraged the landowners to consider the legacy they‟d be leaving to their children who might ask, “Whatever happened to the motto “Almost Heaven, West Virginia”?”
At this point, Dean said, “it’s “Almost Hell.” Our mountains are littered … think about who bears the cost, and who gets the real benefits,” she said.
Lucy Raines said she and her husband are farmers, too. “I have a four-year degree” in agriculture and we take care of my parents’ farm – that 500 acres is dear to us and keeps us busy,” she said. But she also owns Germany Valley Overlook Cabins. From there, her guests can now see at least 80 wind turbines in Grant County, some 40 miles away. “They ask me whether it’s doomsday,” she said.
Rogers again tried to reassure those attending. “We don’t want to do something against the will of the public,” he said.
Though it’s early in the process, and Rogers didn’t have all the information about the project to provide yet, he gave specific answers where he could for nearly an hour.
He explained Solaya had hoped construction would be under way this year, but it took longer than expected to get the data needed.
A similar informational meeting was held in Rockingham County, which Rogers said went “very well.”
Rogers explained Solaya typically did not place turbines with a half-mile or more where surrounding noise is only ambient. “I agree with most of what everybody said here,” he told the crowd. “Things like decommissioning should be written into the rules.”
Pendleton commissioners reiterated the county body has no authority over the project because Pendleton has no zoning or building ordinances. Tuesday’s meeting was set simply to inform the public; the state‟s Public Service Commission makes the final determination.
Hott explained the commission will look at similar ordinances from other areas, and form a well balanced committee to look at guidelines for Pendleton. “We want it to include people who oppose,” she said. “We want it to be half and half, and include realtors, business people, tourism people and agriculture … we do want rules in place.”
McConnell said the commission was considering putting a simple question on the ballot of an already scheduled special election, asking whether people support commercial wind turbines in Pendleton. “We would not have the power of law, but it would be a data point,” he said. “We want the people of Pendleton County to have a voice in the process.”
Asked about what kind of regulations would be acceptable to Solaya, Rogers said the company agreed the Rockingham ordinance was a good one to follow, as it had been developed over time with a lot of research and input. “It was a fair process and it took months,” Rogers said.
Hooten disagreed. “What they ended up with was a toothless set of regulations,” he said.
Rogers noted he was part of the group assigned by Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality the last couple of years to come up with a model set of ordinance regulations localities could use to develop their own.
Asked about the viability of wind energy, Rogers said he believed renewables in general were needed in every form and the nation had become complacent about energy usage. “We need everything, including conservation … we need all sources, and to create competition,” he said.
Rogers noted the trends among consumers as gas prices spiked and dropped. “We do a lot of community projects in New England, and those communities can guarantee themselves a rate of X dollars per kilowatt for 20 years … I have firsthand experience this does work,” he said.
Rogers estimated the project would use 2-3 MW turbines, roughly 23-25 of them, and that the company currently had no plans to extend the facility into national forest property. However, he noted, Dominion was looking a site north of Solaya’s and there has been discussion about a project south of Cow Knob in Virginia, too, all on private land.
Pendleton resident Larry Thomas, who also spearheads a regional alliance and local group opposing wind energy in the East, pointed out a letter from U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials indicating the site was a poor location for a wind plant. “I’ve seen letters like this in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, but this is the strongest worded letter I’ve seen,” Thomas said.
The letter dated Nov. 16, 2007, indicated the USFWS had serious concerns about the location, pointing to endangered species like bald eagles, Virginia big-eared and Indiana bats whose habitats and migratory patters would be disrupted. The service recommended at least three years of preconstruction monitoring.
Though Solaya has not obtained a federal Incidental Take Permit for its other projects, Rogers said the company will pursue one for the Cow Knob plant. “That definitely needs to be done on this project,” he said.
Thomas also noted Solaya originally planned a project with 62 turbines, as still currently described on its web site.
“Yes, that was a vision,” Rogers said, “but right now, we only have letters of intent for this five miles.”
Asked whether Solaya would sell the facility once it‟s built, Rogers said the company mostly operates and maintains the ones it has now, and while he would not rule out selling the Cow Knob project, he said the company had no plans to sell it.
Solaya has no power purchase agreement for the plant at this point, and will need one in order to secure financing, Rogers said.
The company will bid out for consultants to conduct studies and gather more information. Though Solaya will pay the costs of a feasibility study, Rogers said if grant money is available for construction, “I‟m sure we’re going to apply for it.”
The company needs to determine whether the project can produce enough power to offset the costs associated with permitting, studies, construction and maintenance, he said. “If it doesn’t make financial sense, we won‟t do it. Permitting is a huge cost; the substation is a huge cost … we need to do more specific financial analysis.”
Rogers said in Solaya’s other smaller wind projects, consisting of 3, 4, or 5 turbines powering a community or municipal facility, for example, the company shoots for 32-37 percent capacity. “Below that, below 30 percent, it doesn’t work,” he said.
Solaya is a development arm of Lumus Construction. Solaya concentrates on wind, solar and fuel cell power projects worldwide, according to company information. It claims to have more than 630 megawatts of active projects in various states of development in the U.S., Pakistan, Israel and Brazil. Lumus Construction Inc. is a general, mechanical and electrical contractor that focuses on renovating public facilities.
Solaya and the landowner group requested county officials pass an ordinance on wind energy, and commissioners indicated they would proceed on that task. McConnell said he was personally opposed to wind energy but the commission needed to determine the majority opinion in Pendleton and go from there. “This decision has a long-term effect,” he said. “If the majority don’t want it, I’ll do whatever I can to oppose it, but we will try to find out the will of the people.”
Since the company needs no permits from the county, Rogers indicated the next step for Solaya is to compile a list of needed permits, hire consultants for environmental and other studies, and fine-tune site plans. “Basically, we will put the whole package together, and in the next two months, we should have an outlook in place,” Rogers said.
If the project still looks feasible, then from there, Solaya will need to apply for a state permit from West Virginia‟s Public Service Commission and Virginia‟s State Corporation Commission. Rockingham County will require a conditional use permit.
One of the Cow Knob landowners, Lyle Walker, said he appreciated hearing from those attending. “We want to do our due responsibility to all of you. Your concerns are my concerns,” he said. “I hope everyone will keep an open mind about it.”
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