Wind power needs regulation

A good precedent for regulation of the wind energy industry in Virginia was established by the State Corporation Commission when it issued a permit for the proposed Highland New Wind project in Highland County. The review process was systematic, and the permit included precautionary conditions based on the carefully considered recommendations of natural resources agencies and conservation organizations.

Concerns have been raised, however, that the process took too long, and that strict requirements for monitoring bird and bat mortality have scared away investors.

Although the Highland New Wind project poses an exceptional risk to wildlife and is the first commercial-scale wind project to obtain a permit in Virginia, the uncertainty and delay associated with the approval process has proved off-putting to other would-be developers of wind energy in the state. So the wind industry is seeking to change the rules.

It is certainly understandable that the wind industry would want a predictable, fair, and efficient regulatory process. But that is not what the package of wind energy bills currently moving through the Virginia General Assembly is all about. We have instead a rather blatant attempt to eliminate meaningful environmental regulation altogether.

A responsible regulatory process would ensure that wind energy development occurs only in appropriate locations and with constraints that serve to minimize harm to our other natural resources.

I would argue that legislation to establish a responsible regulatory process should achieve the following:

  1. Objective and independent evaluation of potential wildlife, environmental, and cultural impacts prior to permitting.
  2. Effective implementation of a risk management process in cases where potential wildlife, environmental, or cultural impacts are indicated.
  3. Transparency in the review and permitting process, including meaningful opportunity for public involvement.

These are appropriate regulatory objectives for any industrial development proposed for relatively undisturbed areas. The wind energy bills now before the Virginia General Assembly, however, were clearly designed by, or at the behest of, wind industry lobbyists to ensure that such objectives will not be achieved.

Despite the huge footprint and serious wildlife, environmental, and cultural resource issues associated with wind industry projects on our forested mountain ridges, it seems that the General Assembly is poised to vote for deregulation and elimination of requirements for effective per-permitting studies and post-construction wildlife mortality monitoring.

As if to alleviate concern with confusion, the bills in question only apply to “small wind projects,” which are absurdly defined in these bills as projects of 100 megawatts in capacity or less. A 100 megawatt project can consist of 50 two-megawatt turbines and can occupy over 7 miles of ridge line. 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.

Moreover, the environmental impact of commercial wind projects is a function of location, location, location rather than megawatts. In the face of very-well-established risk, the General Assembly is about to enact legislation that will allow poorly evaluated wind development to go forward in our remaining wild landscape without real oversight or accountability.

With respect to energy supply versus environmental trade off, the cost-benefit ratio for wind development on our mountain ridges is remarkably poor to begin with. Now, unless the General Assembly can be persuaded to slow down and give the issue a bit more thought, it’s about to get a lot worse.