Bill would strike a blow for Highland wind farm
State legislators may soon make life easier for a company looking to build a controversial wind farm in Highland County. A new bill in the General Assembly would exempt certain small electricity-generating facilities from state environmental regulations and requirements, so long as they operate on renewable energy.
Senate bill 234 Senate Bill 324, introduced by State Senator Frank Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) two weeks ago and currently being considered by the Commerce and Labor Committee, would exempt all electric facilities that generate and distribute renewable energy with a capacity of no more than 50 megawatts.
Should the bill pass, it would have significant consequences for the proposed wind farm slated for the mountainous rural area 70 miles northwest of Charlottesville in Highland County. The project would be the state's first utility-scale wind generation facility. Highland New Wind LLC, the company planning the development, has faced harsh criticism from area residents and environmental experts as well as numerous legal and logistical challenges.
According to developer spokesperson Frank Maisano, however, the project is currently in the final stages and will not be affected by the senate bill. He said his company is working to fulfill the environmental conditions of the permit recently granted by the State Corporation Commission. The permit will be open for appeals from the general public tomorrow, which would then be heard by the Virginia Supreme Court.
Rick Webb, a senior scientist at UVA and a nationally recognized wind energy expert, believes that passage of the bill is crucial to the Highland County wind farm's success and that without the bill's passage, Highland New Wind would face potentially devastating repercussions for violations of the Endangered Species Act.
The proposed wind farm's location is in the center of several caves that are home to two species of endangered bats: the Virginia Big-Eared bat and the Indiana bat. According to Webb, if Highland New Wind was discovered to be killing these species, the project could be permanently shut down by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The potential of such sudden termination could scare off investors and leave Henry McBride, owner of Highland New Wind, scrambling to come up with the estimated $65 million needed to build the facility.
Webb adds that the bill has far greater implications than the Highland County farm alone; he says it would open the door for a proliferation of unregulated 49-megawatt wind projects in western Virginia and around the Chesapeake Bay. Smaller wind projects do not necessarily signify a smaller environmental impact, according to Webb. By developing many small projects, developers could potentially create a string of wind turbines that stretch across the state.
According to SCC figures reported in Highland County's paper, the Monterey Recorder, the farm is expected to gross at least $5.7 million per year over 20 years. It is also estimated to produce over $200,000 in tax revenue for the county.
In a brief posted on the SCC website, the Nature Conservancy argues that the costs associated with monitoring the environmental risks of the project "would amount to approximately 2.5 percent of the project's annual revenues during the first three years of its operation and less than 1.5 percent of revenues thereafter."
The Shenandoah Sierra Club will be having a public meeting about the Highland County wind farm tomorrow night at 7pm in Harrisonburg. Webb will be speaking at the meeting, which takes place at Clementine's restaurant at 152 South Main St., along with John Flora, a representative for Highland New Wind.