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.
All 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.