Highland New Wind Active Again?

After stopping construction “before winter sets in” in October 2009, Highland New Wind Development (HNWD) is seemingly now, in November 2010, preparing to restart construction work on it’s controversial 19-turbine wind energy project in the remote Laurel Fork watershed in Highland County.

Earth moving equipment is back on the site and a building permit has been obtained for construction of an electrical substation. At this point, it seems that no additional bond has been posted and no land disturbance permit has been obtained for excavation beyond the roads and three turbine sites already prepared.

Meanwhile, it appears that the Department of Conservation and Recreation is back-pedaling on it’s previously declared intent to require a legally compliant Erosion and Sediment Control Plan before allowing further construction.

It seems possible that HNWD’s current activity is related to:

  • posturing for potential investors
  • preserving options for stimulus grant money

The climate for wind energy investment is still very poor, and HNWD’s attorney is on record stating that wildlife monitoring and mitigation conditions imposed by the State Corporation Commission (SCC) would scare away investors. This raises the additional possibility that HNWD hopes to obtain a new permit under the pending Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Permit by Rule (PBR) program, which will impose minimal environmental protection requirements.

The problem for HNWD is that the PBR legislation blocks HNWD from obtaining a DEQ permit, given that it already has an SCC permit.

The last clause in the PBR legislation states:

“That the provisions of this act shall not apply to any small renewable energy project that has applied for or been granted approval by the State Corporation Commission prior to the effective date of regulations promulgated by the Department of Environmental Quality, as set forth in this act; provided, however, that a small renewable energy project that has not yet received a final order from the State Corporation Commission shall not be precluded from withdrawing its application at the State Corporation Commission and filing without prejudice with the Department of Environmental Quality for a permit-by-rule pursuant to this act.”

Of course, HNWD’s lawyers and allies in the General Assembly may seek to circumvent this restriction.

Even so, investors are no doubt well aware of the persistent and continuing problems associated with this $80,000,000 project, and they are not likely to get involved until all of the issues are resolved. In addition to other issues, HNWD faces a citizen suit if it goes forward in violation of the Endangered Species Act.