Renewable energy vs environmental assessment

Congress has passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, providing $15 billion for renewable energy projects and new electric transmission lines. Although an amendment to bypass National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review for funded projects was defeated, an amendment calling for expedited NEPA review was approved.

The effort to eliminate or reduce NEPA review for industrial facilities is not new. As stated in a recent article in Environmental Science and Technology, the business community has sought to reduce requirements for environmental impact assessment ever since NEPA became law in 1970.

What is new is the alliance of industry and some environmental groups seeking to fast track the review process for industrial-scale renewable energy development. But some are warning that the rush to build renewable energy facilities is already creating potentially irreversible mistakes.

Excerpts from the article:

There are national groups that are so fixated on doing everything possible to stem global climate change as rapidly as possible that there may be a tendency to downplay other problems, that when we look back, could be seen as ecological catastrophes in their own right.

— Eric Glitzenstein, public-interest attorney

We need to have a streamlined process — and we absolutely must reduce our carbon footprint — but we can’t afford to create new problems in our efforts to address existing ones by adding to species mortality and habitat fragmentation . . . . Renewable energy has a dark side that is not getting enough attention in the push to curb greenhouse gases. The renewable energy industry likes to tout themselves as green, but killing birds and bats, hugely fragmenting habitat, and adding to cumulative impacts to species is not green . . . . There is a particularly evident lack of environmental oversight of renewable energy projects on private land, which predominates in the eastern U.S.

— Al Manville, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A tsunami of wind energy projects is being proposed for the East Coast . . . The best sites for wind energy development include Appalachian Mountain crests. Unfortunately, these are also prime locations for migrating bats and birds, including raptors.

— Taber Allison, Mass Audubon

Misrepresenting the Status of the Proposed Highland County Wind Energy Project

State and national newspapers, including the Richmond Times Dispatch and USA Today, have reported that Highland New Wind Development is prepared to begin construction by early summer with possible completion by the end of the year.

The source of the reported information is the developer’s public relations spokesman, Frank Maisano, who announced in a press release that the company has filed a site plan, which he characterized as the last step in obtaining a building permit.

The newspapers in question simply repeated the company’s public relations material on the controversial project.

The press release was seemingly designed to help the developer obtain or retain the investors needed to finance the 19-turbine, 65-million-dollar project proposed for a remote and exceptionally wild area in the northwest corner of Virginia’s highest elevation and least populated county.

Despite Mr. Maisano’s statement, the wind project developer:

  • does not have a building permit
  • does not have an Erosion and Sediment Control permit
  • does not have approval from the FAA
  • has not met conditions imposed by the State Corporation Commission
  • has not obtained an Endangered Species Act permit

Highland New Wind has faced a series of legal and environmental challenges since losing its first development partner in 2003.  Virginia’s wildlife management agency has concluded that the project may result in the highest mortality of birds and bats for wind projects in the eastern United States. Virginia’s historic resources agency has raised concerns about impacts to the adjacent Camp Alleghany, listed on the Federal Register of Historic Places and recognized as the most pristine among the remaining undeveloped Civil War battlefields.

Following the death of thousands of bats flying into turbine blades during the first weeks of a West Virginia wind project, and given the location of the proposed Highland project within the range of endangered bat species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has repeatedly recommended  that Highland New Wind obtain a permit under the Endangered Species Act, and both Highland New Wind and the Highland County supervisors have been served a notice-of-intent to sue if the project goes forward without the permit. A federal suit has been brought against a West Virginia developer over the same issue, and earlier this year the U.S. Forest Service blocked plans for a wind turbine project in the George Washington National Forest in part because of the risk to the endangered bats that inhabit Virginia’s mountain ridges.

The developer of the proposed Highland New Wind project has complained that investors would be scared away by strict wildlife monitoring requirements imposed on the project by the SCC.

To-date no investors have been identified, and Mr. Maisano made no reference to investors in his press release.

Highland New Wind’s Loss of Green Credentials

Highland New Wind Development  (HNWD) declares itself to be the “Greenest Wind Farm in the World.”

A month ago HNWD development made national news when its public relations firm announced that Virginia’s first utility scale wind project was ready to start construction. As indicated here (see entry below), that was a blatant misrepresentation. HNWD does not have a building permit, does not have an Erosion and Sediment Control permit, does not have approval from the FAA, has not satisfied the permit conditions imposed by the State Corporation Commission (SCC), and has not obtained an Endangered Species Act permit.

In fact, June 12, 2009 was the first time that reviewing agencies or anyone else had an opportunity to see an actual site plan for the project.  And HNWD’s conditional use permit expires in August. And the SCC permit expires in December.

So, how has this eleventh hour submission been received?

“What they have presented is completely unacceptable.  .  .  . They show contempt, a lack of respect for the county.”  — Highland Supervisor David Blanchard

“The applicant has their perspective on things they need to do to be compliant, and the county has another perspective.  .  .  . I was a little surprised, given the amount of time they’ve had to do it, at the lack of thoroughness.” – –  Highland Supervisor Robin Sullenberger

“I firmly think what they submitted was premature .  .  .  . I see a lot of things wrong with it.”  – – Highland Supervisor Jerry Rexrode

“Based on our review, we believe that the plans and narratives are incomplete and lack sufficient detail needed to perform a final review. We have identified (at a minimum) the following [17] items which need to be addressed prior to a final review.” – – correspondence from Mattern and Craig, an engineering firm hired by Highland County to review HNWD’s Erosion and Sediment Control plan

“Just this week, all three supervisors expressed concern and surprise that HNWD can’t seem to even put its turbines in the right state on the map.” – – Recorder editorial commenting on a HNWD site plan error that located one or two of the 19 proposed  turbines in West Virginia

” Inadequacies and inaccuracies of the Erosion and Sediment Control Plan and Stormwater Management Calculations by Blackwell Engineering (HNWD’s consultant) have resulted in misleading results provided in the stormwater management calculations,”  – – Dr. Pamela Dodd, a consulting hydrogeologist reviewing the plan for Laurel Fork landowners

“Laurel Fork is a pristine stream populated with wild brook trout . . . . Given the misrepresentations that characterize Highland Wind’s maps and statements it would seem that a review and assessment of those materials by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the Department of Conservation and Recreation and Department of Environmental Quality would protect the county from liability associated with making a decision based on erroneous information.”  – – John Ross, Chair, Virginia Council of Trout Unlimited

“Five of ten turbine locations proposed for Red Oak Knob . . . are either in or at the edge of areas that were forested in 2006 . . . contradicting the findings and basis of the conditional use permit and claims by the developer.” – – Rick Webb, Highland County resident, in correspondence with Highland County officials

“Some of the errors in it are very suspicious . . . . Others simply demonstrate the lack of any real effort to comply with the requirements of the conditional use permit or SCC order.”  – –  Ches Goodall, downstream landowner, in correspondence with Highland County officials

And this list could go on.

So what’s up with HNWD? Why did HNWD seek and submit a low-bid Erosion and Sediment
Control Plan at the last minute?

One theory is that HNWD seeks to demonstrate to potential investors that it has the situation and the decision makers, including Highland County officials and the regulatory agencies, under control. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Landscape Classification System

Addressing Environmental Issues Associated With Utility-Scale Wind Energy Development in Virginia

Objectives

  • To provide a readily accessible environmental database to facilitate siting decisions for utility scale wind energy developments so that sites with significant natural resource values are avoided to the greatest extent possible;
  • To identify critical information gaps at the local and regional scale likely to impede accurate evaluation of adverse environmental impacts;
  • To promote site-specific
    assessments prior to making a significant financial commitment to development of a given site; and
  • To demonstrate the need for an assessment of cumulative impacts prior to extensive development of wind energy in Virginia and the surrounding region.

Wild Virginia

Wild Virginia recognizes the need to shift to renewable energy sources for producing electricity in the United States. The environmental benefits of moving away from fossil fuels, nuclear power and other common sources of generating electricity are numerous and significant. We support many of the efforts now in place to make such a shift. In fact, Wild Virginia joined many other organizations in signing the Renewable Electricity Statement of Principles that was sent to all members of U.S. Congress in June, 2007. The statement calls for renewable sources of energy to produce 20 percent of the nation’s electricity by 2020.
Wind energy should, and hopefully will be a major component of America’s renewable energy portfolio. As with almost any large scale development, great care should be taken in the planning process before projects are undertaken. This is true of potential wind energy development in high elevation areas of the Appalachian Mountains generally, and the George Washington National Forest in particular.
The need for caution is due to the number of uncertainties and potential environmental problems associated with wind farms and large turbines. Some of these include: • Impacts to birds. Very little reliable data exists on how much direct mortality may occur (i.e., collisions between flying birds and the turbine blades) and the effects on bird populations. The ridge lines (where the turbines would be sited) often serve as flight paths for migratory birds. • Impacts to bats. Even less is known about potential impacts to bats than is known for birds. • Forest loss and fragmentation. The presence of turbine sites, transmission line corridors, and access roads results in the loss, degradation, and fragmentation of forest habitat. Given the often harsh environmental conditions along mountain ridge lines, these forest communities may be more sensitive to disturbance.
There are also concerns beyond environmental ones. Some of these are: • Privatization of public resources. The concept of private developers using public lands for personal gain is objectionable to many citizens. Wild Virginia generally opposes the idea in the absence of a compelling need for it. Private lands should be the site for private developments. • Practical and logistical issues. Questions have been raised about the utility of building wind farms in the Appalachians. Coastlines and other areas closer to population centers that have already been compromised with significant human activity and are closer to high voltage power lines are preferable. They are also where the need and demand for electricity is greater.
A wind energy project, like any industrial scale development on public lands, must be fully reviewed under the National Environmental Policy Act. Each wind energy project is unique and must be considered on it merits on a case-by-case basis. All of the issues listed above must be fully addressed. In addition, some areas of the George Washington National Forest should be off limits to wind energy development projects entirely. These are Wilderness areas, Road less Areas, Special Biological Areas, and drinking watersheds. Wild Virginia supports renewable energy production and a shift away fossil fuels and nuclear power. Wind power is an important part of that shift.

WV Highland Conservancy

CONSERVANCY SHIFTS POLICY ON WIND ENERGY

The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy Board of Directors has made a significant shift in its policy on wind energy projects. Instead of focusing only on a proposed project’s impact upon the natural environment, the policy now will broaden the focus to include consideration of the role of the wind energy in overall energy policy.  This shift appears in the policy adopted at the April 20 Board meeting: The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy opposes all large, utility scale wind energy projects in West Virginia unless it is demonstrated that the power to be produced by the project would replace power which otherwise would be generated through the burning of coal.
Previous policy had focused on such things as aesthetic values, danger to birds and bats, etc. That policy had been influenced by the unspoken assumption that electricity produced by wind farms would, at least to some extent, replace electricity produced by the burning of coal. Recently, enough doubt has been cast on that proposition so that it can no longer be taken for granted.
Any energy production has a social and environmental cost. Wind farms can damage scenic views, kill birds and bats, diminish property values, and fragment forests. The mining, transportation, and burning of coal can damage or destroy streams, cause blasting damage, pollute the air, obliterate forests, and endanger the lives and health of miners and nearby residents. Production of energy by other means may be more benign or less so but there is always some cost.

One of the appealing features of wind power has always been that it produces none of the air or water pollution associated with coal. No carbon dioxide, no sulfur dioxide, no mercury, no acid mine drainage, nothing. Were it replacing coal, then wind would be highly attractive under some circumstances. To determine a position on any project, we would still have to consider its impact upon wildlife and those who live nearby but it would be worth a look.
This is what the Highlands Conservancy has done in the past. It was active in developing siting standards that the West Virginia Public Service Commission uses to evaluate proposed projects and make permitting decisions. These standards were listings of information that a project developer had to submit and the Public Service Commission had to evaluate. The Conservancy has always supported careful consideration of those of the information submitted as a way to allow wind energy development while still minimizing the costs to society and the environment. It had always hoped that a strict adherence to those standards and careful evaluation by the Public Service Commission would diminish the social costs of wind energy enough that it could support it.
Because the costs in terms of stream loss, water and air pollution, etc. associated with coal were always so great, wind power was an attractive alternative. No matter what the social costs of wind, they always pale when compared with those of coal.
If, on the other hand, the wind energy does not replace coal, then there is less justification for suffering the costs to society associated with wind. We might, for example, more easily tolerate the deaths of birds
at wind farms if this meant that less of the bird habitat destruction inherent in coal mining took place. We might tolerate some inconvenience to those who lived near wind farms if that meant some relief for those who lived near coal mines. If the destruction to the land and misery to the people who live near coal mines still goes on whether there are wind farms or not, there is less reason to tolerate the social costs of wind power.
There has recently been considerable evidence presented that for most or many proposed or operational projects, wind energy fails to replace coal to a significant degree. Admittedly, most of the material we have thus far studied comes from the literature of Wind Farm Opposition1 or that of Public Energy Policy Analysis2. The engineering literature is difficult and we are still making first steps at penetrating it. However, what we have learned already seems sufficient to ask for an affirmative determination that coal will be replaced as a per-condition for our support of any particular project.
This new position will have an immediate effect upon Highlands Conservancy action. In its promotion of its proposed Laurel Mountain wind project, near Elkins, AES LLC has freely admitted that no coal burning will be replaced. Because of this, we are applying the new resolution by submitting a Letter of Protest to the WV Public Service Commission. This letter was still in progress at the time the Voice went to press.

Virginia Forest Watch

Virginia Forest Watch Wind Energy Policy

Global climate change is a significant and potentially life-altering phenomenon for all forms of life. Rising temperatures are implicated in rising sea levels, rapid changes in habitat and potential worldwide extinctions of flora and fauna. At the same time, accelerating destruction of wildlife habitat is also a global crisis. It is therefore imperative that global climate change be addressed in ways that do not further eliminate or reduce wildlife habitat. Virginia Forest Watch strongly supports shifting to renewable energy sources for production of electricity in the United States. However, because forests sequester carbon and are therefore important in mitigating climate change, as well as conferring many other benefits such as clean air, water, and native biodiversity, we do not support industrial-scale energy alternatives that destroy, degrade or fragment existing forests. In particular, Virginia Forest Watch opposes the current trend in industrial-scale wind turbine development on public lands. The development of wind factory sites, transmission line corridors, and very wide access roads result in the loss, degradation, and fragmentation of forest habitat; erosion and sedimentation of streams; continuing, long-term wildlife fatalities and injuries; noise and light pollution for large swaths of surrounding areas; and permanent net-loss to forested carbon storage. The Appalachian Mountains in Virginia are well documented as having many globally unique, rare, threatened or endangered plant and animal species and communities, for which public lands are becoming the last refuge from human development. The development of ridge-top forest habitats will prevent species from moving to higher elevations in response to global warming, which leaves them no alternative except extinction. In addition to environmental concerns, Virginia Forest Watch objects to exploitation of public lands for private profit. With regard to national forests, the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960 states that “it is the policy of the Congress that the national forests are established and shall be administered for outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, and wildlife and fish purposes.” This does not include massive commercial ventures for private profit that threaten most other uses of the national forest. We believe Virginia’s healthiest future lies in implementing policies for energy conservation, increased efficiency, and green building techniques at every governmental level, and with methods of decentralized energy generation using locally-available renewable resources such as solar and small/appropriate-scale wind mills for individuals, farms and businesses, and communities.

Virginia Conservation Network

Statement of the Issue

Wind energy is a carbon-free, homegrown renewable energy option of great potential in Virginia. Wind energy projects are increasing in number around the country, in part because of tax incentives and other subsidies provided for wind energy projects. Advocates for clean energy, greenhouse gas reductions, and energy security embrace wind energy since it is a renewable domestic energy source. Virginia Conservation Network supports the use of both small scale and industrial wind to meet future energy needs of the Commonwealth, but recognizes that industrial wind projects are largely unregulated. No federal or state siting permit is currently required for these industrial wind facilities on land and the permitting procedure for offshore projects is now in development by the federal Mineral Management Service. Current reviews conducted for projects occurring on federal lands may be inadequate to protect significant resources in the Commonwealth. Virginia needs to develop an effective state review and approval process to allow for projects that eliminate and/or significantly reduce impacts of industrial wind projects to wildlife, contiguous forested areas, and other natural, cultural, and historic resources of the Commonwealth. This process should give consideration to cumulative benefits and adverse impacts of proposed industrial wind projects. Having such a review process in place for all industrial wind projects will allow Virginia to identify areas where projects are suitable, encouraging development of renewable energy while ensuring that Virginia’s natural and cultural resources are not destroyed in the process.

Background

Capture3All forms of energy create environmental impacts. Though much less destructive than traditional sources of fossil fuel generation, industrial wind turbines are very large structures that may be hundreds of feet tall. Developers of wind energy need sites where conditions are favorable: often along mountainous ridge tops and offshore locations. In Virginia, these locations are sometimes areas of great ecological sensitivity, provide the Commonwealth’s most spectacular scenery and recreational opportunities, and may include cultural and historic resources of great value. Current projects being discussed are as tall as 500 feet and if improperly sited, could negatively impact wildlife populations, such as birds and bats. In addition to addressing onshore siting concerns, it will be critical to develop appropriate review of offshore wind projects. Coastal wind resources may provide the greatest potential for Virginia. Consequently, a review process will be necessary to protect the value of the Chesapeake Bay and Virginia’s coastal resources in a way that encourages industrial wind projects where they can be built without harm to the ecology and character of these areas. As Virginia encourages the development of renewable energy to address issues of climate change and to transition to cleaner forms of energy, the need to protect the remarkable natural, scenic, historic, and cultural resources that shape our quality of life is widely recognized. Valuable research has been done which can assist Virginia in developing a process to responsibly accommodate industrial wind development. In recent years, a Landscape Classification System to encourage siting of industrial projects was developed by a working group, which included conservationists and scientists, under the auspices of the Virginia Wind Energy Collaborative (VWEC), an affiliation of wind energy advocates. The VWEC had the goal of developing a report in consultation with agency and organizational representatives. Two separate reports were published ( www.vawind.org/ Assets/Docs/LCS-100805.pdf; http:// vwec.cisat.jmu.edu/gis_lcs.htm ). Considered together, these two reports provide valuable research and guidance that will aid and expedite the development of a Virginia review process. Under the Virginia Energy Policy Act of 2006, the considerations of the Landscape Classification System have been expanded to consider natural, cultural, and historic resources. This is in an effort to provide a Virginia Renewable Site Scoring System and is being conducted by James Madison University under contract by the Department of Mines Minerals and Energy. But current efforts have failed to involve important stakeholders and will likely overlook some general concerns and specific sensitive resources. Given the potential environmental benefits of new wind development proposals, it is necessary to have an effective process for locating industrial wind projects in places with sufficient wind while protecting ecologically sensitive, scenic, and historic resources.

VCN has reviewed many policies that could assist the Commonwealth in its pursuit of a clean energy future and share the following examples as ones inclusive of the issues that must be addressed:
1) The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has developed interim guidelines for onshore wind generation projects: www.fws.gov/ habitatconservation/wind.pdf . The recommendations within this document appear to address many concerns in likely wind projects.

2) In addition, the National Academy of Sciences established an expert committee to carry out a scientific study of the environmental impacts of wind-energy projects, focusing on the Mid-Atlantic Highlands as an example. The study considered adverse and beneficial effects and developed an analytical framework for evaluating those effects that can inform siting decisions and provide guidance on how to reduce or mitigate negative environmental impacts. The report is available at: www.nap.edu/ openbook.php?isbn=0309108349.

3) The national Sierra Club also has a balanced approach to considering industrial wind projects and has developed a wind siting advisory policy: www.sierraclub.org/policy/conservation/ wind_siting.asp.

Costs and Benefits Summary

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS OF WIND PROJECTS

Concerning the benefits and risk based on information in the National Academies report . . .
Contribution to Electricity Supply and Emissions Reductions Based on 3 DOE projections for U.S. onshore wind development by 2020:
• There will be 19 to 72 GW of installed wind generation capacity; or 9500 to 36000 2-MW turbines.

• This development will equal 2 to 7 % of total U.S. installed generation capacity, but only 1.2 to 4.5% of actual U.S. generation (less than installed capacity due to the intermittent of wind).

• Demand for electricity will continue to increase, and wind power will provide 3.5 to 19% of this increase; that is, 96.5 to 81% of new generation must be obtained from other sources. Thus, wind power development will achieve no actual “reduction” in demand for electricity generation from other sources.

• Wind power development will provide no reduction in NOx and SO2 emissions in the eastern U.S. –because these pollutants associated with acid rain and ozone formation are regulated by emissions caps.

• Wind power development will offset emissions of carbon dioxide by 1.2 to 4.5% from the levels of emissions that would otherwise occur from electricity generation. At present, electrical generating units account for 39% of total U.S. CO2 emissions from energy use. If the 39% value does not change, wind power development will offset only 0.5 to 1.8% of U.S. CO2 emissions from energy use.

• Given that the density of the wind resource is less for the Mid-Atlantic region than for the U.S. as a whole, the benefits in terms of electricity supply and emissions reductions will be less for the Mid-Atlantic region than for the country as a whole.
Cumulative Impact on Birds and Bats Based on two projections for wind development in the Mid-Atlantic Highlands and the range of mortality observed at existing Appalachian wind projects:

• National Renewable Energy Laboratory projection for wind development: 2.2 GW of installed capacity or 1439 1.5MW turbines. o 5,805 to 25,183 birds killed per year; 33,017 to 61,935 bats killed per year

• Projection for wind development based on the PJM Interconnection Queue: 3.9 GW installed capacity or 2571 1.5 MW turbines. o 10,372 to 44,999 birds killed per year; 58,997 to 110,665 bats killed per year

• There is insufficient information to assess the potential for population impacts on birds in the eastern U.S. (Data are not available for most wind project sites.)

• The potential for impacts on bat populations in the eastern U.S. appears to be significant.

• Due to insufficient data, the committee made no finding concerning the relative impact of new versus old turbines.

• Additional impacts to birds, bats, and other wildlife will occur due to forest fragmentation and habitat alteration related to access roads, transmission corridors, and turbine sites associated with wind power development, especially on forested ridges.
Rick Webb note: The committee was not charged with making a determination about the significance of the potential contribution of wind energy development. Nor was it charged with weighing the costs and benefits. My personal perspective, however, is that wind energy development on Appalachian ridges carries great risk of environmental harm and very little potential for benefits.