GREEN- Wind jammer: Should homeowner suit stymie Virginia's first wind farm?

If Highland New Wind gets its way, a wind farm similar to this one near San Jacinto Peak in California, will soon hug the Blue Ridge near Monterey.

In 2006, when a company called Highland New Wind announced it had the design plan and the money to proceed with an unprecedented project of putting an 18-24 turbine, 39-megawatt complex of electricity-producing windmills along a former mountaintop cattle pasture near Monterey, the proposal deeply divided Highland County citizens.

Some said it was high time Virginia began embracing what looked like an eco-friendly form of energy, not to mention the $200,000 the project would bring in for Highland County in annual tax revenue. Others saw the project as an eyesore amid otherwise pristine wilderness, a potential threat to the extinction of two endangered species, and an inefficient sacrifice of natural resources in exchange for not very much renewable energy. 

Now with the first groundbreaking on the project still a year away, a Highland citizens' group is threatening to sue if the project moves another inch forward.

"If the project gets a building permit," says Rick Webb, UVA environmental scientist and co-founder of a group called Highland Citizens, "we will sue both the county board of supervisors, and Highland New Wind if it all goes forward without an approved conservation permit as stipulated by the Endangered Species Act."

According to Highland New Wind spokesperson Frank Maisano, resistance by citizens such as Webb, is futile.

"He can sue all he wants," says Maisano. "The State Corporation Commission already granted us a permit because they were satisfied in the pre-construction analysis that this would have minimal impact on the wildlife there. We're going to continue to collect data for two or three years after this is built to determine what impact there is, but we think that's going to tell us that it's not having much impact."

And just which animals' welfare are at the center of the controversy? Two endangered species of bats– the Indiana, and the Virginia big-eared– make their home in the hills where Highland New Wind wishes to put its giant windmills and Webb says the scenes of dead bats have already played out at wind farms in mountainous regions.

"In West Virginia," explains Webb, "they've seen about 4,000 of these dead bats at a 44-turbine project there, and they've recently determined it's not the blades, but the vortex their spinning creates that causes a pressure change inside the bat and causes death fairly quickly."

So at a time when energy derived from conventional carbon-based sources is becoming increasingly costly for the environment and the economy, why halt a wind farm for the sake of bats? Webb says the implications of the bats' extinction is greater than just the winged creatures themselves.

"As with any species, they perform a vital role in the ecosystem," says Webb, "not to mention that you'd be destroying much of our remaining wild landscape."

And according to Webb, consumers wouldn't get that much in return.

"The tradeoff is ridiculous," says Webb. "Most of the wind resources in this country are in the Great Plains. Ninety percent of Virginia's wind energy resources are offshore. This would be little more than a symbolic contribution to the problem."

"I don't want to hear it," says Maisano. "That's the classic NIMBY thing. We are certainly advocates for offshore winds, but if you want to do wind right, you have to do it all. The most technologically advanced offshore wind projects out there right now will not be viable to go online until 2013 or 2014 at the earliest, and cost two to three times more than on-land projects."

Additionally, Maisano says wind power companies pursuing off-shore projects run into many of the very same issues.

"Guess what?" says Maisano. "When those get developed, the people who live by the ocean will say, 'Why don't we do it in the mountains?'"

Meanwhile, closer to home, Albemarle County's Planning Commision struck down a proposal to allow commercial wind turbines– whose blades can extend longer than the wing of a 747– on May 13, but just recently indicated that wind power may not be altogether dead in Albemarle. 

On September 9, the director of community development Mark Graham proposed to the Planning Commission that the county may want to allow private homeowners to erect no more than four to six small wind turbines on their property.

"I think in this county," Graham told the commissioners, as quoted in The Daily Progress, "it will be used as an experiment to see if it can reduce energy costs." 

While it remains to be seen how zoning restrictions will be applied when it comes to private wind power, Planning Commission chair Calvin Morris indicated that he'd like to see some sort of leeway for the potentially green idea. 

Albemarle has a goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.