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Battling animosity in Virginia -- Birds, bats and beauty barrier

Virginia, a state with more than 7.5 million people and no wind power, is mired in a struggle over the prospect of a 38 MW wind station and the impact it may have on birds, bats and tourism. Since 2005, when Highland New Wind Development (HNWD), a first-time developer, received county permission to site 19 turbines on a scenic ridgeline near the West Virginia border, residents and environmentalists have been rallying in opposition. Now a State Corporation Commission (SCC) hearings officer has recommended conditional approval that would include at least three years of monitoring and inspections, along with the possibility that turbines would be required to shut down during periods of heavy bat and bird activity. Details of such monitoring would be left to the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

"We expect that the commission will issue a ruling in April or May," says HNWD's Tal McBride, who runs the company along with his father, Henry. "But in my opinion there'll still be an ongoing effort by opponents to delay the project as long as possible." Under state law, the SCC may approve electric generation projects that do not threaten the reliability of the electric system, that advance electric competition, and that have positive impacts on economic development.

In addition to getting Virginia into the renewables game, proponents see the potential for an estimated $200,000 a year in county tax revenue as a tangible benefit of the $60 million project. But according to Rick Webb, a University of Virginia scientist, there's good reason for the opposition. "Several other projects have been studied in the central Appalachian region and there have been a high number of birds and bats killed," says Webb. "It happens to be a migratory path and this project is exceptionally risky in that sense."

Ill will

Other concerns have been raised. The area is scenic and in close proximity to a Civil War battlefield. Tourism is a growing industry in Highland County, where the number of lodgings has tripled in the last ten years. "It would make sense to propose projects in areas that would pose fewer environmental risks," says Webb, whose research frequently deals with the effects of coal fired power plants. "I don't want to be characterised as an opponent to the wind industry, but I think that in terms of introducing Virginians to wind power, a lot of damage has been done. There's a lot of animosity and a lot of ill will."

The SCC can approve, reject or alter the recommendation. If the project moves forward, the developers must submit a bond to Highland County to cover tower removal if things go badly. But, despite their inexperience and the fact that they have yet to secure turbines for the project, the McBrides believe that a wind farm is the best possibility for 50 of the 4000 acres that have belonged to their family for decades. "It's close to metropolitan regions and on a high and windy spot," says Frank Maisano, speaking for HNWD. "The site also has a transmission line cutting right through it and to put up 19 turbines, it's likely we won't have to cut down a tree. It's a very rural site without a lot of traffic going through and there are four other ridges before you even get to the site. You're not going to find a better place for a wind project."

Disheartening tactics

Webb strongly disagrees and says that roughly half of the county's 2400 residents signed a petition against the development. He expects the opposition to continue. "There's so much misinformation out there," Webb says. "A few years ago people would have thought that if any industry was going to have high standards regarding the environment it would be the wind industry. But from what I've seen, the public relations tactics haven't been that much different than the methods employed by the traditional polluters. It's been very disheartening."

Yet even the commission's decision will not necessarily be the final word. The state supreme court is expected to hear arguments in June in a case contending that Highland County officials did not follow land-use regulations when they initially approved the project.

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