The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has proposed regulations for a Permit by Rule for so-called "small wind energy projects." The proposed regulations fall well short of satisfying the DEQ's legislative mandate to "include conditions and standards necessary to protect the commonwealth's natural resources."
The proposed regulations were designed to implement legislation sponsored by state Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, noted for previously serving wind industry interests by attempting, among other failed maneuvers, to legislatively override local authority to make land-use decisions concerning wind projects. Wagner is now having more success with his PBR.
The first problem with both the legislation and the proposed regulations is the absurd definition of "small wind energy project," which is specified as any wind project of less than 100 megawatts of rated capacity. Today's 2 megawatt turbines can be spaced at about seven turbines per mile of ridgeline. Under the new rule, Virginia's mountain counties could soon be facing a proliferation of 500-foot turbines, permitted in seven-mile increments with limited environmental review and mitigation requirements.
Another problem is the inevitable perception by local officials that their concerns about the adverse impacts of wind energy development can now be safely left to DEQ. On the contrary, the PBR severely restricts DEQ authority. If the limited requirements of the rule are all met, then the DEQ must issue a permit within 90 days of permit application. DEQ has no authority to deny a permit, and it has very limited authority to impose permit conditions or require environmental mitigation.
In the Virginia Register notice on the proposed regulations, DEQ points to the need for a "clear ... and efficient path for development of wind energy in Virginia," and to illustrate the need, it cites the nearly seven years it took for the proposed, but not yet built, Highland New Wind Project to obtain approval from the State Corporation Commission.
DEQ failed, however, to acknowledge that during all those years the Highland project avoided environmental assessment, ignored agency requests for analysis and information, failed to produce a site plan, communicated almost exclusively through lawyers and hired spokesmen, and stirred up huge and entrenched public opposition.
Much of the debate in the General Assembly leading up to passage of the Permit-by-Rule legislation centered on avoiding the protracted uncertainty associated with permitting Highland. The proposed PBR regulations will accomplish just that: Expedited permitting will be achieved, cost to developers will be reduced, and investors will face less risk regardless of potential environmental and community impacts.
Highland might wish it could apply for a new permit under the proposed PBR regulations. The SCC permit imposed precedent-setting (and investor-intimidating) wildlife monitoring and protection conditions. A permit from the DEQ under the PBR would be much less restrictive. But Highland can't apply for a permit from the DEQ: It already has a permit from the SCC.
At least for now, it seems that the remote and ecologically unique Laurel Fork area of Highland County, where the company seeks to build its 39 megawatt project, is protected.
But less protection will now be provided to the other mountain ridges in our region that have been targeted for industrial-scale wind energy development. It's a real window of opportunity for the big wind companies like Invenergy, Iberdrola and BP, which are presently mapping out their prospects.
Western Virginia counties would do well to enact ridgeline protection ordinances, and they should do so soon, before that option is taken away by Wagner and his colleagues.
Mr. Webb is a resident of Highland County and publishes the Virginia Wind website. Visit the Virginia Wind website for comments on the proposed regulations: www.VaWind.org