Speaking of power, do you know what brought Lyndon Baines Johnson to Washington? His ambition, of course—but his issue was rural electrification. In The Path to Power, the first of Robert Caro’s four-volume (so far) biography of LBJ, there is a vivid description of the daily life of a housewife in Texas’ hill country before the coming of the wires. Johnson had seen his mother’s mind-numbing labor and vowed to do something about it.
Federal regulation of electrical power distribution had begun in 1930. Five years later it was transformed into a New Deal project. Stitching many sprawling regions into one wholly powered economy required a big government agency. It’s currently known as FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Seen from Texas, its attention has turned a hundred and eighty degrees. It once had a mission to send electric power into the hill country and high plains; now it wants to bring power from those areas’ wind “farms”.
West Virginia has long been a net generator of electricity. The sources have changed according to strict dollar calculations, but through every cycle our mountains have been sacrificed. Coal continues to be mined in outrageous ways even as less of it is used to produce power here and more of it is shipped overseas. Now wind is favored in Washington. Energy’s footprint falls on previously unaffected highlands.
At the Fall Review, Brad Stephens, a lawyer based in Morgantown who is the Executive Director of Allegheny Highlands Alliance, explained the broad legal framework for wind power’s new prominence on the grid. Here are a few highlights.
During the Carter administration, halfway between the New Deal amendments and now, Congress began to encourage appropriate technology and alternative energy. The Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (better known as PURPA) offered special exemptions for Qualifying Facilities, including cogenerators and small power producers that employed solar, wind, biomass, waste, geothermal, or hydroelectric power.
Then Reagan removed the solar panels from the White House. PURPA was more or less buried. Fourteen years later, Congress exhumed it, this time calling the preferred producers Exempt Wholesale Generators. Electric utilities were required to buy power from the EWG’s and give them access to transmission lines. The Production Tax Credit for wind energy producers first appeared in that 1992 legislation. Wind power became hugely profitable. According to the Energy Information Agency, in 2007 wind power received federal subsidies totaling $23.37 per megawatt-hour. (Compare nuclear power, $1.59, and coal and gas, both less than a dollar. The wind industry complained that those figures did not take into account the cumulative effect of earlier subsidies to the other sources.)
FERC got serious about the alternative-energy campaign. “Functional unbundling” of generation and transmission; market transparency; easier interconnection; and other regulatory changes enabled a new wind industry to take advantage of the enthusiasm for greener energy. In 2011, FERC directed public utility transmission providers to consider “public policy requirements” in addition to economics and security in their planning processes. Chief among those public policies were various states’ Renewable Portfolio Standards that set what percent of their electricity consumption must come from non-fossil fuel sources.
Other public policies were ignored. In the rush to deal with climate change, Congress and FERC focused on what goes up (into the atmosphere), at the expense of what grows and goes along (our highest ridges). The environmental impacts of this new form of mountain-stripping were not taken into account. They have become even more important in a warming climate. Policies that might suit West Texas aren’t appropriate for West Virginia.
We can’t blame it all on the feds. Siting decisions were left to the states. That could have been a good thing – local knowledge and sensitivities could affect where, and where not, to place the giant turbines. But as we know from long experience with other industries, effective regulation is not our state’s strong suit.
The siting rules that the Highlands Conservancy’s wind committee worked to establish have been treated as mere information: if an applicant fails to describe the possible impacts on water, wildlife, viewshed, natural areas and historic sites, the application will be rejected as incomplete (thus, the Public Service Commission’s denial of the Jack Mountain proposal); but if the applicant fills in all the blanks, it really doesn’t matter how bad the impacts might be. By state law, the PSC is required to balance the interests of the public, the economy, and the applicant. Somehow the balance always tips toward approval.
In 2005, the federal government did assert jurisdiction over a site-selection issue, not for turbines but for transmission-line towers. Congress authorized the Secretary of Energy to designate National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors in any region experiencing transmission constraints. Further, it bestowed with that authority the power of eminent domain. Government takings always raise resistance, so you can look forward to news about that.
Brad Stephens had much more to tell us about the grid and our regional transmission organization, PJM (which began as Pennsylvania-Jersey-Maryland but now covers parts of thirteen states and serves 60 million people). Here, though, I’ll proceed straight to his conclusion. Because of their inefficiencies and the middling nature of the wind on our ridges, wind facilities in West Virginia will never produce more than a trivial amount of electricity – barely one percent of the total generated here. Dependent on baseload coal and nuclear plants, and balanced by the more flexible gas-powered plants, they are parasitic upon the system. But they could ruin many more ridges before we’re all built out.
Editor’s Note: For a more detailed account of Mr. Stephen’s views on electricity being produced by industrial wind in West Virginia and a comparison to other sources of electricity, see the September, 2012, issue of The Highlands Voice. It’s full of charts and numbers and may look as if it is boring or hard to understand. At the same time, it is the kind of information that we need to know if we are to get a handle on wind energy policy. And it’s not boring.
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