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.