Highland Precedent

Laurel_Mountain_2-286x400Highland New Wind seeks to build twenty 400-foot turbines in Highland County. Precedent-setting monitoring and mitigation requirements have been imposed due to high risk to birds and bats, including federal and state protected species. Pictured below:  Laurel Mountain Wind Project (Northwest of Elkins, WV) Photos by John Terry, 032911 Earth disturbance and habitat fragmentation by AES Corporation.












Laurel_Mountain_5-400x265 AES-Laurel-Mountain




Highland New Wind

RedOakKnobTwenty 400-foot turbines would be distributed on high-elevation pastures in the Laurel Fork watershed, one of the most remote, undisturbed, and ecologically unique areas in Virginia. Concerns about potential adverse effects of the project have been raised by a broad range of agencies and organizations.


Va. Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries:

“. . . the Highland Project has passage rate indices ranging from 36-80% greater than comparable sites. These data demonstrate the importance of this site as migratory pathway for bats and birds . . . . We believe this may translate into the highest mortality rates in the east.”

Additional concerns about impacts to natural and cultural resources have been raised by: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, the Virginia Division of Historic Resources, The Nature Conservancy, the Virginia Society of Ornithology, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Parks and Conservation Association, the Valley Conservation Council, Scenic Virginia, and others.

Highland County is known for its scenic beauty and unique habitat that supports a diverse animal population. From the outset of the SCC process, HNWD has tried to provide as little information as possible in an effort to manipulate and limit the review process. DEQ, DGIF and DCR have all stated that the information submitted by HNWD was not sufficient for them to determine the impact upon wildlife but that the information that was provided indicated that there is a likelihood of significant bat and bird mortality. – from Post-Hearing Brief, Highland Citizens, 01/19/07

Overstated benefits and understated costs

Industrial Wind Power in the Mountains of  Virginia

Wind energy is promoted as an alternative to dependence on foreign oil, an alternative to mountain top removal, coal mining, an alternative to fossil fuel combustion. and part of the solution to global warming, and its free! 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 our remaining wild landscape. Yet public perception has been carefully managed-benefit claims are wildly exaggerated-and we are distracted from the real problems. HNWD

Wind project developer seeks to avoid wildlife protection measures

The Virginia State Corporation Commission is hearing testimony on the proposed Highland New Wind project on Tuesday, July 17, at its Richmond office building. If the Highland County project goes forward, it will be Virginia’s first utility-scale wind project.

Highland New Wind is testifying that it cannot afford wildlife protections recommended by wildlife agencies, conservation groups, and citizen respondents in the case now before the Virginia State Corporation Commission.

Despite the prospects of government incentives, which would cover the majority of development costs, it remains a marginal project, promising negligible benefits and huge environmental costs.

“This project is simply a bad investment for the wind industry and a bad precedent for the Commonwealth,” says Rick Webb, co-manager of Virginia Wind and co-author of a National Academies report on environmental impacts of wind projects. “If it goes forward, it can only damage the concept of green energy.”

The proposed Highland New Wind project would involve twenty 400-foot turbines on two ridges in the Laurel Fork area of Virginia’s least populated county, an area noted for its high mountain scenery and wildlife abundance. Limited studies conducted by the developer indicate that the project site may have the highest numbers of migrating birds and bats among all wind project sites in the eastern United States.

Multiple agencies and organizations have presented testimony about the proposed project to the State Corporation Commission.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service : recommends that wind energy developers avoid wildlife concentration areas, and that development only occur after multi-year and multi-season study of wildlife use. Highland New Wind must obtain a Habitat Conservation Plan required by the Endangered Species Act.

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries : indicates that wildlife mortality at the proposed site may exceed that of all other sites in the eastern U.S. and that without effective monitoring and mitigation measures, the project presents “unacceptable risks.” Continuous monitoring for the life of the project should be required, with project curtailment when mortality thresholds are exceeded.

The Nature Conservancy : provides estimates that as many as 64,000 bats will be killed each year given the number of wind turbines projected for construction by 2020 in the Mid-Atlantic Highlands. Unless solutions are found, the proposed Highland New Wind project will contribute to this “intolerable situation.”

Highland Citizens : argues that Highland New Wind “has tried to provide as little information as possible in an effort to manipulate and limit the review process.”

Virginia Wind : estimates that Highland New Wind will provide less than one-tenth of one-percent of the Commonwealth’s annual electricity needs, and even that small amount will not be available during the peak summer demand period when commonly the wind is not blowing.

This project clearly tests the limits of public support for wind development.

Virginia Wind takes the position that meaningful steps must be taken to solve our energy problem and address air pollution and climate change. The Highland New Wind project is a step in the wrong direction.

Open letter to Mr. Frank Maisano, spokesperson for Appalachian wind developers

Mr. Maisano – I see that you are quoted in several articles concerning the WV PSC denial of a permit for the Liberty Gap wind project.

One of the issues raised by the WV PSC is that the applicant has failed to prepare the Habitat Conservation Plan and obtain the Incidental Take Permit needed for compliance with the Endangered Species Act. I believe that this failure had to do with the fact that there are no proven measures for avoiding bat mortality. The applicants certainly knew that if they pursued the matter the lack of mitigation measures would become all too clear. I note that you neglect this key issue in your newspaper statements.

I understand the role that you play as wind industry PR person. But I suggest that you do a disservice to potential investors in Allegheny Highlands wind projects. Given that the only mitigation measure for the bat mortality problem is likely to be project curtailment, any requirement for effective monitoring of bat mortality is not likely to appeal to investors. And it is not likely that future projects will go forward without strict monitoring requirements.


Legislation to eliminate environmental review of wind projects

Although conservation groups in Virginia now recognize the need for site-specific assessment of the environmental costs and benefits of commercial-scale wind development on our forested mountain ridges, wind industry lobbyists, with the help of some state politicians, are working to eliminate the review process.

We currently have a good precedent in Virginia that was established by the State Corporation Commission (SCC) when it issued a permit for the Highland New Wind project. The review process was systematic, and the permit included precautionary conditions based on the carefully considered recommendations of natural resource agencies and conservation organizations.

The Highland New Wind precedent and SCC involvement in commercial wind project review are now threatened by bills before the 2009 General Assembly. It now appears, based on reliable sources, that Lt. Governor Bill Bolling and his staff are responsible for these bills.

These two sets of bills effectively eliminate meaningful environmental review and regulation of what the bills define as “small” wind projects.

Both sets of bills define “small” wind projects as projects of 100 MW or less. A 100 MW project can consist of 50 2 MW turbines, or 66 1.5 MW turbines, and can occupy over 7 miles of ridgeline. The current generation of turbines can be up to 550 feet tall, requiring up to 5 acres of clearing per turbine, with 100-foot wide connecting roads and transmission corridors. There is nothing “small” about commercial wind projects.

Included in these bills are provisions:

  • to make the DEQ the lead permitting agency for wind projects rather than the SCC
  • to reduce environmental review to a check list rather than a meaningful  assessment
  • to unreasonably limit or eliminate post construction monitoring of wildlife mortality
  • to provide an investment tax credit equal to 35% of project cost, and
  • to limit state and local property tax liability to 20% of value.

Wind industry lobbyists  frequently cite the protracted and still incomplete review of the Highland New Wind project as justification for their deregulation efforts. They fail to acknowledge that:

1) Serious environmental risks were identified by state wildlife agencies and conservation groups
2) The developer has failed to provide as site plan and other key information to the reviewing agencies
3) The SCC has, in fact, issued a permit with appropriate monitoring and mitigation conditions
4) The project is delayed because no investors are  willing to assume the environmental risks.

There is no reason to change the current permitting process provided by the State Corporation Commission. It works, and it allows wind development to proceed in a responsible manner. There is also no reason to limit environmental review based on project size. Project location, rather than megawatt size, is the real predictor of the environmental harm caused by wind projects.

Wind power needs regulation

A good precedent for regulation of the wind energy industry in Virginia was established by the State Corporation Commission when it issued a permit for the proposed Highland New Wind project in Highland County. The review process was systematic, and the permit included precautionary conditions based on the carefully considered recommendations of natural resources agencies and conservation organizations.

Concerns have been raised, however, that the process took too long, and that strict requirements for monitoring bird and bat mortality have scared away investors.

Although the Highland New Wind project poses an exceptional risk to wildlife and is the first commercial-scale wind project to obtain a permit in Virginia, the uncertainty and delay associated with the approval process has proved off-putting to other would-be developers of wind energy in the state. So the wind industry is seeking to change the rules.

It is certainly understandable that the wind industry would want a predictable, fair, and efficient regulatory process. But that is not what the package of wind energy bills currently moving through the Virginia General Assembly is all about. We have instead a rather blatant attempt to eliminate meaningful environmental regulation altogether.

A responsible regulatory process would ensure that wind energy development occurs only in appropriate locations and with constraints that serve to minimize harm to our other natural resources.

I would argue that legislation to establish a responsible regulatory process should achieve the following:

  1. Objective and independent evaluation of potential wildlife, environmental, and cultural impacts prior to permitting.
  2. Effective implementation of a risk management process in cases where potential wildlife, environmental, or cultural impacts are indicated.
  3. Transparency in the review and permitting process, including meaningful opportunity for public involvement.

These are appropriate regulatory objectives for any industrial development proposed for relatively undisturbed areas. The wind energy bills now before the Virginia General Assembly, however, were clearly designed by, or at the behest of, wind industry lobbyists to ensure that such objectives will not be achieved.

Despite the huge footprint and serious wildlife, environmental, and cultural resource issues associated with wind industry projects on our forested mountain ridges, it seems that the General Assembly is poised to vote for deregulation and elimination of requirements for effective per-permitting studies and post-construction wildlife mortality monitoring.

As if to alleviate concern with confusion, the bills in question only apply to “small wind projects,” which are absurdly defined in these bills as projects of 100 megawatts in capacity or less. A 100 megawatt project can consist of 50 two-megawatt turbines and can occupy over 7 miles of ridge line. The current generation of turbines can be up to 550 feet tall, requiring up to 5 acres of clearing per turbine, with 100-foot wide connecting roads and transmission corridors. There is nothing “small” about commercial wind projects.

Moreover, the environmental impact of commercial wind projects is a function of location, location, location rather than megawatts. In the face of very-well-established risk, the General Assembly is about to enact legislation that will allow poorly evaluated wind development to go forward in our remaining wild landscape without real oversight or accountability.

With respect to energy supply versus environmental trade off, the cost-benefit ratio for wind development on our mountain ridges is remarkably poor to begin with. Now, unless the General Assembly can be persuaded to slow down and give the issue a bit more thought, it’s about to get a lot worse.

Bailing out wind energy project is a misuse of stimulus money

The Highland County Board of Supervisors has unwisely proposed that the Commonwealth of Virginia provide $1,500,000 in economic stimulus money to help facilitate the proposed Highland New Wind Development project in order to “enhance the long-term returns to the county, developer and Commonwealth.”

The Highland New Wind project received permits over a year ago from both the State Corporation Commission and Highland County after a long, contentious, and expensive review process involving multiple government agencies and conservation groups. Both permits will expire in the fall of 2009 unless construction goes forward, which is doubtful.

The proposed project has real environmental problems, and despite the benefit of significant financial incentives for commercial wind energy, the developer has not been able to find the investors needed to go forward. To date the project has not submitted a site plan to either the county or the state, and a number of the required mitigation studies have not been completed.

The main problem with the Highland New Wind project is the extreme risk of harm to wildlife, especially the death of raptors and bats due to collision with turbine blades. Based on pre-construction studies at the site, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries concluded that this project may result in record-high rates of wildlife mortality.

Both the state wildlife agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that Highland New Wind  prepare a habitat conservation plan and obtain a permit in compliance with the federal Endangered Species Act, but the developer has thus far refused to do so.

The SCC did not require the federal permit but instead imposed stringent monitoring conditions that ensure that the inevitable violations will be detected. In declining to require compliance with the Endangered Species Act, the SCC advised that Highland New Wind was taking a business risk, but it was the developer’s money at risk, and it was the developer’s risk to take.

The lead attorney for the developer complained that the SCC monitoring requirements would “scare away investors.” He seems to have been correct.

Since obtaining its state and county permits, Highland New Wind has sought to find a way to dodge, eliminate, or avoid its permit conditions. It has supported a state legislator who has worked to exempt projects like Highland New Wind from SCC oversight or approval. It has persistently tried to ignore or shortcut the requests of agencies charged with reviewing the project and implementing permit conditions. The proposed use of economic stimulus money to further study this well-studied project is part of a pattern.

It seems that the latest plan is for a new study that will reach new conclusions. Remarkably, the proposal specifically calls for a joint venture involving the developer and the Virginia Wind Energy Collaborative, a wind energy advocacy group whose principals have been long-time and outspoken supporters of the project.

Highland New Wind is a risky project, and a substantial amount of state money and agency resources have already been spent in studying the project and in the development of appropriate permit conditions. It’s time to let the project rise or fall on its own merits.

Virginia has a long list of much better ways to use the stimulus money.

The Energy Conservation Alternative

A recent Appalachian Regional Commission report, “Energy Efficiency in Appalachia,” estimates that it would require the construction of 40 new coal-fired power plants to keep up with the region’s projected increase in energy consumption through 2030. The report cites investment in energy efficiency and conservation as a practical and beneficial alternative.

For perspective, it would require hundreds of miles of ridge line wind turbine development to offset the need for even one relatively small coal-fired power plant.

Abstract of the ARC report:
The Appalachian Region’s energy consumption is expected to increase 28 percent between 2006 and 2030, compared with a 19 percent increase forecast for the United States as a whole. Research indicates that strong policy interventions will be needed to promote energy-efficient purchases and practices that could help the Region meet its future energy needs while ensuring its continued economic and environmental health. This study assesses the long-term energy-efficiency gains that could be achieved by implementing an ambitious package of energy-efficiency policies throughout Appalachia. It examines the breadth of energy-efficiency resources in Appalachia; the time frame for harnessing these resources; and the policies and programs that could most effectively translate these resources into energy savings, as well as the impact those policies and programs could have on jobs and wages in Appalachia. The engineering-economic modeling conducted in the study concludes that such policies could result in significant energy savings and positively impact the Appalachian economy.

National Forest Proposal Denied

FreedomWorks LLC is one among several corporations considering wind project development on or adjacent national forest land

Freedom Works proposed construction of 131 440-foot wind turbines along an 18-mile stretch of national forest ridge line in Shenandoah and Rockingham Counties (VA) and Hardy County (WV). The proposed project area is identified as unsuitable for commercial wind development in the Revised George Washington National Forest Management Plan.

On April 2, 2009, Maureen Hyzer, Forest Supervisor for the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, denied Freedom Works’ proposal to construct meteorological towers to collect preliminary data required for the wind project. The rejection letter to Freedom Works lists a number of concerns about the project.

Among those concerns (paraphrased here):

  • The project would require at least 16 miles of road construction.
  • The project would require at least 500 acres of permanent forest clearing in an area with limited human activity that currently provides remote habitat for wildlife.
  • The project would visually dominate the landscape of Great North Mountain and the adjacent Shenandoah Valley.
  • The project would potentially exacerbate the threat to bat populations that are now being killed in large numbers by White Nose Syndrome.

As indicated in a letter to “Interested Citizens” from James T. Smalls, District Ranger of the Lee Ranger District, the Freedom Works proposal did not comply with the Forest Plan and it did not provide sufficient rational for use of national forest land.

UPDATE (1): An article in the Northern Virginia Daily (041109) indicates that the developer intends to circumvent the local Forest Service decision by seeking approval at the national level.

UPDATE (2): An article in the Daily News Record (042209) includes two significant errors concerning the Freedom Works proposal.

First, the article falls for the exaggerated PR claims of Appalachian wind developers by comparing the capacity of the proposed Freedom Works project (215 MW) with Dominion’s Wise County coal-fired power plant (580 MW) –suggesting that the the proposed wind project could produce almost 40% as much electricity as Dominion’s plant.

Electricity generation, however, is properly quantified in terms of megawatt hours, not megawatts. Because of the low capacity factor of wind turbines on Appalachian ridges, wind projects only produce a small fraction of their theoretical generation.

The Freedom Works proposal involves 131 2-MW turbines and would require 18 miles of ridge line. It would require 2,260 2-MW turbines to match the output of the proposed Wise County coal-fired generating plant in August (the peak demand period of the year). That would require about 323 miles of ridge line, about the length of the Blue Ridge Mountain chain in Virginia.

Second, the article quotes the developer, stating that, except for the Forest Service permit, the project has all the permits it needs, including a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This is not correct. The project will need both state and local permits, which it does not have, before it can go forward.

Moreover, because of the threat to endangered bats and raptors, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has repeatedly recommended that central Appalachian region wind project developers prepare Habitat Conservation Plans and obtain Incidental Take Permits as required by the Endangered Species Act. To date, no developers have complied.