Blowin in the wind: Tilting with windmills in Highland County

 

Virginia homeowners may not be ready for a windmill on every roof, but what about a string of electricity-generating turbines on a distant hilltop and the option to buy green power at affordable prices?

With a controversial wind farm planned for Highland County, 2006 promises to be a year of boom or bust for a power source that the Department of Energy calls today's "most viable renewable energy."

The extension of a federal tax credit and the jump in the cost of petroleum have given the industry a boost, but growth has also kicked up a funnel cloud of opposition to the energy source that critics deride for blighting bluffs and butchering birds and bats.

In Virginia, the state's first utility-scale wind farm, targeted for private land in scenic Highland County, 70 miles northwest of Charlottesville, continues to be mired in citizen opposition. In July, the county approved the application by landowner Henry T. McBride, owner of Highland New Wind Development LLC, to erect up to 19 turbines on scenic ridge-top land. The County stands to gain about $200,000 annually in tax revenue, but the board of supervisors has been sued, and opponents vow to fight on.

Challenges relate to everything from the height of the blades to zoning ordinances to potential threats to endangered species and even to the conditional-use permit itself.

"How Highland County goes will determine how Virginia goes," says turbine defender Alden Hathaway, who directs the EcoPower Program for the D.C.-based Environmental Resources Trust.

"If, as a result of Highland County supporting wind power, Virginia decides to adopt a pro-wind and renewable energy position," Hathaway says, "then Virginia will make a significant impact on the use of coal."

Charlottesville has a wind power company, Greenlight Energy, but the owners have avoided controversy by choosing communities that want a wind farm.

Greenlight's managing director, Matt Hantzmon, says Greenlight is planning a project for Virginia but has moved slowly because the state's best wind resources are in scenic– and therefore potentially controversial– areas along ridges and the coast.

Greenlight's projects are now concentrated in the West and Midwest, where Hantzmon says landowners often welcome the income from leasing land to wind companies. In addition, the Midwestern viewshed is so vast and the population so sparse, he says, that few complain about turbines rising hundreds of feet into the air.

Wind supporters believe it's the cleanest and most renewable fuel around. Opponents see dead bats and birds. Supporters see a cure for global warming in reduced greenhouse gases. Opponents see ridgelines littered with whirring blades the size of skyscrapers.

As wind farms move east, so does the debate.

 

Green Battle

 

Monterey is nearly two winding, twisting hours northwest of Charlottesville. Local boosters call the Appalachian hamlet near the border of West Virginia Virginia's "Little Switzerland."

The wind farm would hug the edge of the Allegheny Plateau, a multi-state expanse of high elevations and home to several endangered species.

Among these are the Virginia northern flying squirrel, the Indiana bat, the Virginia big-eared bat, and the Southern water shrew.

So why is the Nature Conservancy, famous for speaking softly and carrying a big stick in the form of buying up acres of land, speaking out in opposition?

"We are science-based, and we are solution-oriented," says senior scientist Judy Dunscomb. More to the point, she says, "If we could buy land, that would be great, but bats have this habit of flying through the air."

The only peer-reviewed study of the issue found that two turbine sites in Pennsylvania and West Virginia killed 2,000 bats in six weeks. "That's a large number for such a short period of time," says Dunscomb, noting that bats typically reproduce slowly, just one pup at a time.

The arguments sound familiar, no matter how far-flung the battlegrounds. Or battle-waters.

The nation's first offshore wind farm, Cape Wind, targeted for Nantucket Sound, has met challenge after challenge from wealthy property owners, including coal-industry opponent and environmental attorney Robert Kennedy, whose family has a compound in nearby Hyannis Port. His uncle, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, also opposes the project.

Ross Gelbspan, global warming activist and author of The Heat is On and Boiling Point, says he considers the opposition in his home state "selfish elitism." Citing recent research, Gelbspan calls for a reduction in global fossil fuel emissions by 70 percent "within a decade" to avert climate chaos, and says wind is an important part of the package of renewable solutions.

Unfortunately, early wind farms may not be helping that case. For instance, California's oldest and largest wind farm is located on a major bird migratory route in scenic Altamont Pass. Environmental groups cite it as the deadliest wind farm in North America for birds of prey.

On the other hand, conventional fuel sources can take a deadly human toll– a point brought home in early January when 12 miners died underground at the Aracoma Alma mine in West Virginia. And when it doesn't involve underground digging, coal extraction can entail blowing mountaintops to bits, a removal practice that has obliterated over 380,000 acres and destroyed more than 700 miles of Appalachian streams, according to EPA data.

How can any land-lover oppose the wind for environmental reasons?

For starters, all wind farms– not just the early ones– kill birds, says researcher Carl Thelander: "You cannot avoid bird kills at wind farms."

Today's wind farms look different from early installations in the deserts and prairies of the Midwest and California, where hundreds of bladed turbines whir night and day. The turbines have grown more efficient, and the rotors have grown taller. The 19 turbines proposed for Highland County would be up to 400 feet high– or four times the height of the tallest building in Charlottesville.

Tal McBride, who is developing the Highland County wind farm with his father, said that the footprint, however, will be tiny. During a break at a State Corporation Commission public hearing Monday, March 13, McBride said each turbine's foundation will be just 16 feet square.

"If lined up, all the foundations would fit in this room," McBride said in the gymnasium of Highland County Elementary School.

Opponents, however, point out that access roads, substations, and power transmission lines will tear through verdant forests. They also point to the speed of the blades as the source of the wildlife carnage.

McBride says that modern turbines move slower than old ones– at least as measured by revolutions per minute. The slower rpms and greater space between blades mean that "birds can see them," he says.

But Thelander warns that the increased height can imperil more birds. And as for the claim that modern turbines move more slowly than the smaller ones from the 1970s, that's just "bullsh*t," says Thelander.

"The tip speed is the same," he claims. "Birds get hit by the tips."

According to the website of GEPower, the world's top maker of turbines, the 1.5 megawatt model spins at just 10 to 20 revolutions per minute, creating quite a different image than of a whirling pinwheel. But the tip of that GE 1.5MW has to travel nearly 800 feet to make a revolution. Calculations indicate that the tip would be moving at between 91 and 184 miles per hour.

And then there are the views. Highland County wind farm opponents argue that if wind energy springs up there, all of Virginia's viewsheds are at risk. The first speaker at Monday's meeting, Blue Grass resident Sandy Hevener, who shoots Highland County scenes for calendars, claims that people won't buy photographs of turbine-covered mountains.

But Tal McBride, whose day-job is commercial photographer, disagrees.

"No offense," says McBride, "but there's lots of landscape photos. The first wind farm in Virginia– now that you can sell."

Charlotte Stephenson is president of a group called Highlanders for Responsible Development. "The historical presence Virginia has developed will pay a heavy price for the development of wind energy," she says, "because if Highland County receives this terror, so will other places in the state."

Stephenson's claims are "typical," responds Greenlight's Hantzmon: "It's new, and change engenders some amount of concern."

Hantzmon says opposition is fiercest in states where coal is king, and he says he sees "no groundswell" in Virginia to embrace a new technology. "We're very comfortable with our cheap electricity," he laughs.

Despite deregulation of electricity, only one company– Pepco– now offers Virginia consumers a "green" power option. In a report issued in September, the State Corporation Commission found that while 3.2 million customers in Virginia have the right to choose an alternative supplier of electricity, only 1,600 customers have opted to buy "a more environmentally friendly source of electricity." Reason: it's more expensive than the capped rates of suppliers of energy from traditional sources.

However, in the past decade, turbines have become so efficient that the newest windmills in the windiest places can produce electricity for about six cents per kilowatt-hour– about what the typical American now pays for electricity. The federal tax credit can lower the cost by another penny. And as turbine technology improves and fossil fuel costs rise, many industry-watchers believe wind energy may soon not even need the tax credit to be cost-competitive.

For now, though, coal and nuclear power supply about 97 percent of Virginia's electricity needs– and Hantzmon isn't optimistic about the prospects of a statewide renewable energy mandate passing in the General Assembly.

Building new coal plants is so popular right now that the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that coal will actually climb from supplying 50 percent to providing 57 percent of American electricity over the next 25 years.

Rick Webb, a member of the Highlander opposition group and a University of Virginia researcher who studies acid rain and other effects of coal burning, says he's not against properly sited wind facilities. He believes what's needed is "credible" state environmental review.

Last summer, Webb was elected to a National Academy of Science (NAS) team undertaking a 20-month study of wind energy in the mid-Atlantic states. Wind energy supporters fear the group's report could lead states to enact strict regulations on proposed wind projects.

"The NAS is not undertaking a study because it has decided this is a valid issue," says American Wind Association spokesperson Christine Real de Azua. "NAS has been asked to do the study as part of a delaying tactic by Congressman [Alan B.] Mollohan, who has long wielded study requests as a way of delaying or killing projects and trends he does not like." Real de Azua points out that the congressman hails from "coal-producing West Virginia."

"Sometimes," says Webb, "the people proposing wind development make ad hominem attacks on the people who are asking questions. The wind energy industry is not behaving in a way that's consistent with their green image."

Webb says that one of his chief concerns is that turbine owners have denied access to many of the sites where researchers would like to find out more about the bat and bird deaths. And then there are what he calls the "myths" about wind energy.

For starters, he points out that wind is not a viable replacement for petroleum because petroleum now accounts for just two percent of electric needs– most petroleum goes into transportation.

"Wind is not a very big part of the solution," says Webb, blasting as another myth the notion that wind energy can make a sizable dent in coal-burning.

For instance, he says that if Virginia utilities tried to use wind just to meet the annual increase in electrical demand, they would need to erect 500 to 600 turbines– enough to cover about 75 miles of ridges. Per year.

"They just don't do much in August," says Webb, "and that's when we need the most electricity."

And although no one is seriously proposing replacing existing nuclear facilities with wind, Webb points out that it would take 469 miles of ridge-top turbines– about five times the length of Shenandoah National Park– to replace Dominion Power's North Anna plant.

Although she ridicules the NAS study, Azua points out that regulations are in place. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plays a mandatory role in project approvals if an endangered species is involved. But except in that case, projects on private property face primarily state and county regulations.

At the SCC's March 13 hearing, about 15 citizens addressed HNWD's application. No date has been set for follow-up evidentiary proceedings in Richmond, although the Department of Environmental Quality has the issue on its agenda. However, "It remains to be seen if the review process will be meaningful," Webb says.

While Webb acknowledges that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has guidelines for project siting, "They would be meaningful if applied, but they are strictly voluntary, and they have not been followed for wind projects in the mid-Appalachian area," he says.

Wind supporters say state and local assessment makes sense, since the impacts of a wind project are local and can vary widely by region. Counties can also require specific studies and information before a project begins.

In some cases, wind proponents argue, regulation of wind projects is not only comparable to oversight of other energy sources, it's even more restrictive.

Mark Rodgers, company spokesman for the controversial Nantucket Sound project– which sits on federal land– says the assessment applied to Cape Wind is "more rigorous and comprehensive than that used for any existing fossil fuel plant in New England." Alaska Rep. Donald Young introduced legislation in early March to ban wind turbines within 1.5 miles of shipping lanes, which would effectively deep-six the Cape Wind project.

Azua points out that US Fish and Wildlife has issued guidelines for impacts of wind projects on birds. "But no similar guidelines," she says, "exist for natural gas extraction or mountaintop removal coal mining."

But bats, not birds, have proven to be the greater challenge facing wind development in the Appalachians. Since its erection in December 2002, the Mountaineer Wind Energy Center on West Virginia's Backbone Mountain in Tucker and Preston counties has killed scores of bats.

There, the Bat Conservancy has teamed up with the wind industry to try to find solutions. But Webb sees a larger issue.

"The main problem with wind project development in the Appalachian region is that it will occur on our undeveloped mountain ridges," he says, noting that sites typically involve eight turbines per mile in three- to four-acre clearings, entailing "miles of connecting roads, access roads, transmission lines, and wide-scale fragmentation of our remnant wild landscape."

On the bright side, "Development in the National Forest will at least trigger the National Environmental Policy Act, which could provide a meaningful environmental review process," Webb says.

Wind proponents argue that wind farms on private land preserve wildlife habitat by preventing residential development, and the U.S. Department of Energy points out that wind energy typically cannot spew pollutants or discharge toxic substances into groundwater.

Josh Tulkin of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network argues that every turbine "ramps down" the use of coal or natural gas.

Even so, Webb argues, it's important to first determine what the "actual benefits" and "environmental tradeoffs" would be. "It would be careless for Virginia to pass any sort of renewable energy portfolio standards without first conducting an objective study," he says.

Webb admits he dislikes "the tone of the debate" where anyone who raises questions "is called a NIMBY." The NAS study, he says, is "a chance for objectivity."

Albemarle County resident Mitch King, who sells an array of renewable energy sources from his home business, Old Mill Power Company, and who grilled wind opponents during the SCC hearings in Monterey, doesn't think Webb can be objective in this case– because of his activist stance in opposing Highland County's wind farm.

But Webb, who has studied the effects of air pollution on streams for 25 years, disagrees. "I just question whether wind development is any kind of meaningful solution," says Webb, "or just another problem."

 

Solutions?

 

If not wind and a renewable energy policy, proponents of the technology ask, what solution do wind opponents offer for solving the climate and energy crises? And shouldn't they be lobbying to hold the fossil fuel industry to the same "discriminating approach" that Webb wants applied to wind development?

"These wind energy opponents are conveniently avoiding tackling the much larger challenge of weakness in the entire energy industry," Azua says, "and failing to address the much larger impacts caused by conventional power technologies like coal."

Webb offers a similar, but reverse, argument. "Perhaps the biggest problem with the campaign for wind energy development is that it distracts us from real solutions," he says. "We deceive ourselves into believing we are doing something responsible to solve our energy problem.

"I think it's an over-simplification to view the issue as a choice between coal and wind or between foreign oil and wind," Webb says. "Our biggest problem is ever-increasing energy consumption." Supporting wind development, he argues, will just lead to cheap electricity that encourages more consumption.

In Virginia, electricity consumption rose 2.5 percent annually through the 1990s, much of it imported from out of state, according to the SCC. While wind now provides less than one percent of the nation's electricity needs, it's growing at a rate of over 24 percent annually, making it "the fastest growing source of electricity generation on a percentage basis," according to a Government Accounting Office report.

Even though state wind maps show there are very strong wind resources along ridges and the coast, power companies have just begun to target Virginia. So have renewable energy activists who hope to bring a greater percentage of such options to the mid-Atlantic energy table.

A recent study by Virginia Tech's Center for Coal and Energy Research, while noting practical concerns such as the variability of some Virginia winds, sounded an upbeat note on the prospects for increased wind energy in the state.

"It appears," said the Tech report, "that the major obstacles to increased wind development will be regulatory and legal in nature rather than economic."

Up in Monterey, where the McBrides' wind farm is slated for two ridges to the west, tensions at the SCC hearing ran high– but not the light level. In the Highland County Elementary School gymnasium, designers had supplemented two sets of glass-paneled double doors with just a single window. And, to reduce the glare of a brilliant sun beaming outside, the SCC has papered that one window over.

Overhead, 12 metal halide lamps struggled to keep the space bright enough for the audience to see the speakers. It was so dark inside the steel shell structure that the SCC brought in two batteries of floodlights.

Larry Held of Monterey cited a famous statement by the Union of Concerned Scientists: if every U.S. family replaced an incandescent light bulb with a compact fluorescent, the nation could decrease CO2 emissions by more than 90 billion pounds annually.

"To me," Held told the crowd of about 75, "that sure sounds a lot more reasonable than erecting these huge inefficient eyesores along our ridge tops."

Peter Asmus, author of Reaping the Wind, points to the problem of our aging electric grid, a dinosaur in the digital age. He calls for a "smart grid," a transmission system that can keep pace with renewable technology.

"If we could harness the wind," Hantzmon says, "just three states– Texas, North Dakota, and Kansas– could produce all our electricity needs in the U.S."

Highland County wind opponent Andrew Luther, speaking in Monterey on Monday, said that just one 100-square-mile array of high-tech hydrogen-infused solar dishes located in a Southeastern desert could similarly supply 100 percent of the nation's electrical needs.

Hantzmon adds that changes in technology will continue to redefine the renewable energy field, though for now such dreams remains "a theoretical construct."


While this may have served Dorothy Gale's family in the Wizard of Oz, Kansas ranks third, just behind North Dakota and Texas, in wind potential, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

 


Sandy Reisky and Matthew Hantzmon have thrown their future to the wind with their firm Greenlight Energy. Hantzmon says the job includes everything from purchasing wind turbines to "negotiating with utilities about purchasing wind energy from our projects."
FILE PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO

 


Critics say that bats and birds, such as this kestrel killed at the old-fashioned wind farm in Altamont Pass, California, still are threatened by the latest turbines.

 


"The problem is that we need to take conservation seriously, and as a nation we do not," says Rick Webb. "The American lifestyle is clearly not on the table."

 

–––-IMAGES FROM THE HEARING–-

 


Tal McBride, left, and his father Henry, at right, plan to erect 19 two megawatt turbines on a portion of their 4,000-acre property in Highland County.

 


Andrew Luther: "Who will pay for the damage?"

 


"Land that used to be worth $300 an acre is now worth $3,000 an acre or more," said wind project proponent Jacob Hevener.

 


G.K. McClung says he wrote the first letter to the editor against the Highland wind project, and he notes, "The only seeds planted on these huge so-called farms are... seed money subsidies."

 


Best known for its annual Maple Festival, Monterey is the county seat of Highland County whose mountains and climate have local boosters calling it "Virginia's Little Switzerland."

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