By Dr. Rick Webb
While Appalachian Voices is generally supportive of wind power development, the controversies over siting wind turbines in the mountains are only likely to grow over time. For this reason, we will try to cover both sides of the issue for our readers. Please note, however, that the views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Appalachian Voices as a whole.
The Virginia Wind Environmental Working Group has established a website, www.vawind.org, to provide information concerning environmental impacts associated with utility-scale wind energy development in Virginia and the surrounding region. The website was initiated in April of this year with the posting of a Landscape
Classification System (LCS) and associated geographic information system files. The LCS is designed to:
To provide an environmental database to facilitate siting decisions for utility-scale wind energy development.
To identify information gaps that are likely to impede accurate evaluation of adverse environmental impacts;
To promote site-specific assessments prior to making commitment to development of potential sites; and
To demonstrate the need for assessment of cumulative impacts prior to development of wind energy in Virginia and the surrounding region.
The LCS is comprised of five landscape categories characterized by the degree of conflict between their use for utility-scale wind powered energy generation and other existing or potential uses. Three general kinds of potential use conflict are defined in the document, including: legal or regulatory use conflict, environmental use conflict, and aesthetic use conflict. The five landscape categories are Unsuitable-Mapped, Unsuitable-Unmapped, Undetermined, Flagged, and Unclassified.
Unsuitable-Mapped includes areas such as designated Wilderness and National Park lands. Unsuitable-Unmapped includes areas such as habitat for endangered species and significant bird and bat concentration areas. Undetermined includes National Forest lands for which reviewers and coauthors were unable to reach consensus. Flagged includes areas such as those identified as critical for maintenance of regional biological diversity. Unclassified includes all areas that are not otherwise classified, as well as areas without commercially viable wind energy potential.
It needs to be emphasized that Unclassified is not equivalent to Suitable. There are no areas that should be deemed suitable for utility-scale wind energy development prior to objective and independent environmental assessment, and to date there have been no such assessments for wind projects in Virginia or the surrounding region. This public-policy shortcoming is addressed in the LCS document, which examines existing options and guidance for wind project assessment.
Aside from concerns about special places and critical habitats, the LCS document addresses concerns about wildlife impacts in general, drawing on case studies from wind projects in the surrounding region.
The problem with fatalities of migrating birds and bats is a particular concern.
For example, in 2003, at the first wind turbine project constructed in West Virginia, an estimated 2000-4000 migrating bats were killed by flying into turbine rotors. This represents the greatest level of wildlife mortality ever reported for a wind energy project, and a comparably high number of bats were killed in 2004. A leading expert has estimated that almost 60,000 bats per year will be killed if all the proposed projects within 70 miles of this site are actually built. No one is arguing that bat populations can sustain this level of impact.
In addition, at this same site, 33 migrating birds were killed in a single night when they flew into turbine rotors, representing the largest bird mortality incident ever reported for a wind project. Although this event was dismissed by the company’s consultant as an anomaly associated with low cloud cover and lights, such cloud conditions are not uncommon on our ridges and birds are also known to fly into unlighted towers. Recent studies in the Appalachian region have documented that large numbers of nocturnal migrants fly over the ridges at heights that can bring them into contact with turbine rotors. In addition, large numbers of raptors, which migrate in the day time, are known to fly at low elevation along our mountain ridges during low cloud ceiling.
Another major concern is forest fragmentation and the attendant impact on wildlife, such as the neotropical birds that depend on interior forest. An analysis of wind projects in WV and PA indicates that projects on forested ridges involve three to five acres of clearing per turbine, in addition to clearing associated with access roads and transmission corridors. Given that almost all the inland areas with commercially viable wind energy potential are located on our forested ridges, this represents a significant impact on our remnant wild landscape and high-elevation refugia.
More information on these environmental issues and efforts to address them is provided on the Virginia Wind Environmental Working Group website and in the posted LCS document.
The website and LCS document also help to put the wind energy issue into context by providing information about the potential scope of regional development. A 2004 inventory of operating, permitted, or planned wind projects in six Mid-Atlantic states identified 1500 prospective turbines in the uplands and 2400 along the coast. This includes 131 operating turbines and 462 turbines that are permitted but not yet constructed in the uplands. This development is largely driven by tax credits and other artificial incentives. For example, a recently initiated campaign for enactment of a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) in Virginia would require that 15% of Virginia’s electricity usage be provided by renewable sources. At least 5,500 turbines would need to be in operation for wind energy to satisfy 75% of this requirement in 2030. Assuming that these are the current 1.5 MW, 400-foot turbines, and that half are built in the uplands at the typical density of eight turbines per mile, this would require the development of about 700 miles of ridgeline. The other 2,750 turbines would either be built in the Chesapeake Bay or along the coast.
Of course, the important question is whether the benefits of this development would be worth the costs. Wind energy advocates, including those who are calling for enactment of an RPS, argue that the environmental costs of wind development are insignificant in relation to the consequences of global warming, air pollution, and coal mining. This argument might be compelling if wind development represented a significant step toward solving those problems.
Consider, for example, the currently proposed Highland County wind project. If built, this project would, at best, satisfy less than one tenth of 1% of Virginia’s present annual electricity demand. Given that Virginia’s demand for electricity is increasing at a rate of about 2.7% per year, it would take about 600 turbines just to satisfy a single year’s growth in demand. This would amount to putting turbines on all the suitable ridgetop locations in Highland County. And the next year another 600+ turbines would need to be built somewhere else – just to keep up with the continuing growth in demand.
It doesn’t take an expert in energy policy to figure out that we are not going to accomplish much with wind turbine construction on our ridgetops. If we are actually going to solve our energy problems, and not simply create more problems, it’s time to be realistic.
The Virginia Wind Environmental Working Group presently includes the four coauthors of the LCS document: Dan Boone, Judy Dunscomb, Rick Webb, and Christina Wulf.