By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2008
RICHMOND -- Miles of mountain ridges hugging the state's western border could hold the key to Virginia's search for alternative energy sources.
That is where developers are looking to build more than 100 wind turbines taller than the Statue of Liberty, side by side, on 18 miles of the George Washington National Forest.
FreedomWorks, a company with projects in four states, wants to generate electricity for the power-hungry Washington area and beyond, despite concerns about disturbing wildlife, spoiling untouched lands and creating noise and light pollution.
As the United States searches for ways to lessen its dependency on foreign oil, wind energy is getting a second look in states such as Virginia that had not embraced it.
The national push, along with new state financial incentives for renewable energy, has prompted more interest in wind turbines in Virginia.
"Wind is catching fire," said L. Preston Bryant Jr., Virginia's secretary of natural resources. "It is literally all the rage."
Virginia is one of a dozen states, most of them in the Southeast, with no wind farms. But that might change this year.
The State Corporation Commission has approved a request by another company to build 19 turbines in remote, mountainous Highland County, known as Virginia's Switzerland. That is expected to produce enough electricity to power 15,000 homes in the mid-Atlantic. Construction is expected to begin this year.
Two smaller projects would power Tangier and Wallops islands off the Virginia coast. And Dominion Virginia Power, the largest energy provider in the state, with 2.3 million customers, is working with BP Alternative Energy North America to build and operate wind farms in Virginia. No locations have been announced.
"There is a lot of really good opportunity in Virginia," said Frank Maisano, a lobbyist for 13 wind developers in the mid-Atlantic states, including Virginia and Maryland.
But the new push for wind energy in Virginia has highlighted a conflict within the environmental community.
Some groups, which have long clamored for more renewable energy sources and encouraged wind power instead of a new coal-burning power plant in southwest Virginia, oppose the FreedomWorks project, the largest wind proposal in the state, because of the potential harm to plants and animals.
"We are strong advocates for renewable energy and wind energy," said Glen Besa, director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club. "But we would like to see it developed responsibly."
Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, one of the few groups that supports the FreedomWorks project, said the problem in Virginia is that by the time developers came, their opponents were well-organized.
But, Tidwell said, he thinks opponents in Virginia will change their minds about wind energy when they see a wind farm for themselves and that it is harmless. "Acceptance will grow," he said.
More than half of Virginia's energy comes from coal, a third from nuclear and a small amount from gas, oil and other sources. The state's energy needs are expected to grow by about 1 million homes in the next decade.
Last year, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) presented a plan that calls for in-state energy production, including wind, to increase 20 percent. Some experts have estimated that wind energy in Virginia, on land and offshore, has the potential to produce as much as 20 percent of the state's electric needs.
Today, wind power generates enough electricity in 34 states to power 5 million homes -- slightly more than 1 percent of the U.S. electric supply, according to the American Wind Energy Association in Washington. Maryland officials have approved one wind farm and are considering two others in the western part of the state. None of the projects has been built.
"It's no longer an alternative energy source," said Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Association. "It's mainstream."
In May, the U.S. Energy Department released a first-of-its kind report that calls for the country to generate 20 percent of its electricity through wind power by 2030. That national push, combined with state incentives, have fueled the flurry of activity in Virginia.
Last year, when the General Assembly rewrote the complex laws that govern Virginia's power companies, legislators set a goal that 12 percent of the energy generated in the state come from renewable resources by 2022. The legislation includes financial incentives for power companies that allow them to raise rates by a half-percent if they meet one of the goals.
Don Giecek, director of the Virginia Wind Energy Collaborative at James Madison University, said the 2007 law acted as the "economic driver" prompting more interest in Virginia.
But Tidwell, of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said the utility-supported law is not tough enough to force companies to act.
"Incentives are fine," he said. "But there's a reason 20-some other states have made it mandatory. It's the most effective, fastest way" to spur change.
FreedomWorks proposed its $430 million project to build 131 turbines, enough to power 86,000 homes, along the Appalachian Mountains after the law went into effect.
Repeated calls to FreedomWorks in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., were not returned. But Maisano, who represents the company, said that the project is in the preliminary stages and that testing could begin this year.
The company has asked the Federal Aviation Administration to determine whether the project might affect air traffic. FAA spokeswoman Arlene Salac said the agency is studying the proposal.
FreedomWorks must seek approval for construction from the U.S. Forest Service and the State Corporation Commission. Neither has been contacted by the company.
But a growing coalition of environmental groups and residents has voiced objections to the 44-story turbines in Rockingham and Shenandoah counties.
Rick Webb, a University of Virginia scientist who studies wind energy, said he generally supports the power source, but he is skeptical that the benefits of a project in the Appalachians would outweigh the environmental costs.
Supporters of the wind project say that private companies are using the forest for logging and that no bird populations would be affected. The project could increase the tax base and provide jobs, they say.
Still, residents keep asking: Why do developers need to build in the forest?
"That's where the wind is," Maisano said.