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Photo by George E. Beetham Jr


By Peter Shoenfeld

The siting of industrial wind turbine facilities in our beautiful high mountains has long been a subject of controversy for the Highlands Conservancy Board.  This reflects the larger environmental community, where both admiring and objecting viewpoints coexist.

The road to our present position has been long and winding.  The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy Board addressed wind projects on October 20, 2002.  It discussed proposed projects on the Allegheny Front (Nedpower) and near Snowy Point (Dominion) and passed a resolution which included:
1.  WVHC does not support permitting for wind power projects that would degrade scenic vistas from Canaan Valley, Dolly Sods, Seneca Rocks, Spruce Knob and other special places in West Virginia. 
2.  WVHC insists that no permits be issued for wind power projects until siting criteria are in place including viewshed analysis and full environmental impact analysis as required by NEPA. 
3.  The Wind Power Committee and the Executive Committee were authorized to intervene in both the Ned Power and Dominion  cases …

The Dominion project was abandoned when a significant population of endangered flying squirrels was found at the site.  The Nedpower project split the organization into a group totally opposing the project and one more accepting of wind power and willing to negotiate with developers.  A reduced version of the Nedpower project was permitted, constructed and is highly evident today.

In the years 2003-2007, the Conservancy Board produced no further resolutions that express blanket opposition to industrial wind projects in the Highlands.  The Wind Power Committee participated in the development of a new state regulatory mechanism. The old Public Service Commission “certificates of convenience and necessity” were replaced by “siting certificates” for industrial wind facilities.  The regulations governing these are more a guide to developer's applications than restrictions on what might be developed. They say what should be included in the application and what the Public Service Commission should consider.  They do not provide much guidance on what the Public Service Commission should do with the information provided or require a full environmental impact analysis as required by NEPA.  

During this period the Conservancy and Wind Power Committee moved to a posture of general environmental concern rather than the specific concern with the impact on special places.

A major shift occurred in 2008. Instead of focusing only on a proposed project’s impact upon the natural environment, the policy was broadened to include consideration of the role of industrial wind energy in overall energy policy.  This shift appears in the policy adopted at the April 20, 2008, Board meeting

The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy opposes all large, utility scale wind energy projects in West Virginia unless it is demonstrated that the power to be produced by the project would replace power which otherwise would be generated through the burning of coal.

This resolution reflected the main popularly assumed environmental benefit of Wind Power.  It was assumed that, unlike the combustion of coal and other fossil fuels, its use for power production caused no emission of noxious substances into the atmosphere.  This applied in particular to carbon dioxide, heavily produced by coal burning and thought to be a large contributor to global warming.

The flaw in this assumption, however, is that the wind doesn't blow all the time or at a constant speed.  Because of this, the energy it produces must be frequently replaced by something more reliable, usually coal in West Virginia. If coal will be frequently called upon to replace the production of irregular wind, fossil fuels must be kept burning all the time. This constant burning of coal, even when wind energy is being produced, may result in no real saving. In addition, the thermal efficiency of coal burning is reduced by frequent adjustments and on-off cycling. Hence the 2008 Conservancy requirement.

Thus the intermittent nature of wind generation reduces its ability to replace coal as an energy source.  It is even conceivable that it reduces the ability to replace coal to zero.  The extent to which this is true remains a matter of considerable dispute.

However, the wind energy committee of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy so far has been unable to confirm to what degree the suggestions made in the preceding paragraph represent the actual functioning of coal fired electricity generating facilities in the face of intermittent wind power generation. -

Environmental politics also played an increasing role in influencing Conservancy positions on wind.  Some environmentalists hoped that the exploitation of wind for generating power would replace that of coal and that land potentially available for mountain top removal coal mining would instead be used for the development of industrial wind facilities. 

In July, 2008 the Board passed a resolution:
The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy applauds efforts to site wind facilities on land that would be sacrificed to mountaintop removal coal mining. To that end, we strongly support the effort to evaluate the development of a wind facility on Coal River Mountain in Raleigh County,, West Virginia.

  The reluctance of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy to assert unqualified opposition to littering our West Virginia Highlands with industrial-scale wind turbines has always been a source of frustration to a number of members.  At the same time, some of our members remained supporters of wind power.

To help resolve this controversy, the Board solicited the views of the membership. The May, 2012, issue of The Highlands Voice announced that the Board and the Wind Power Committee intended to review our policy on wind power and invited members to submit their thoughts.

The solicitation produced a flurry of responses.  See the June, the July-August, and  the September, 2012, issues of The Highlands Voice.  Of the letters and articles received, one supported off shore wind development.  Both that writer and the others who wrote opposed wind turbines on the West Virginia Highlands.

This is not to say that opinions on wind power are unanimous.  See, for example, the letters expressing a contrary opinion in the February, March, and April, 2008, issues of The Highlands Voice.

Before, during, and after the solicitation of views of the membership, the Wind Power Committee repeatedly considered and revised a proposed wind power policy for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.  After much consideration, on October 21, 2012, it presented to the Board a resolution which the Board adopted as a resolution of the Board.    The Board resolved as follows:
The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy is concerned about the cumulative impact of industrial scale wind energy development on the environment and acknowledges that continued development of industrial wind facilities, in and of itself, is harmful to the West Virginia Highlands, which it is our mission to protect.

For instance, the West Virginia Highlands are an essential migratory pathway for globally significant song birds and a wintering ground for the golden eagle.  High density placement of wind turbines has a high potential of disturbing this ecology. Fracturing the forests of highland ridge tops, an activity associated with commercial wind turbine installations, is also harmful to the environment. 

This does not, of course, end the matter.  With as contentious an issue as wind power has been over the years nothing ever could.  New data may become available; something else could change.  For the present, however, the Board is happy with the process it went through to reach this result and pleased that we have a position which is consistent with our mission of conserving the highlands of West Virginia.