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.