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Should More Wind Farms Be Built In Appalachia?

Sunday December 8, 2013
By Rick Webb


I oppose utility-scale wind energy development in the Appalachian region, and not because I don't recognize the need for alternative energy. I am aware of the harm caused by reliance on coal, and I am concerned about global warming. Appalachian wind development, however, is more of a distraction than a solution to these problems. And it threatens some of the best of the region's wild landscape.

Ridgeline wind projects typically require extensive forest clearing and excavation for roads, turbines, powerlines, and substations. With about a mile needed for every seven turbines, even low-capacity projects result in substantial habitat loss and harm to wildlife. The environmental footprint is simply too large in relation to the benefits.

Suppose, for example, we want wind-powered electricity in the summer months when minimum wind availability coincides with maximum electricity demand. Let's say we want to supply enough electricity to replace just one relatively small, 500-megawatt power plant. This very modest objective would require about 300 miles of ridgeline turbine construction, and we would still need another readily available source of power for when there is no wind.

So, how should we respond to policy proposals of the wind industry and its advocates that could lead to hundreds of miles of turbines on our mountains? I have some suggestions.

Let's insist on performance accountability. The wind industry should be required to report net generation, quantifying any displacement of other generation sources and any reduction in emissions. We should not accept the industry's self promotion without access to the data.

Let's not give the wind industry a pass on environmental review. We should not back away from protection of golden eagles and other wildlife that use the mountain ridges, and projects should not go forward where high bat mortality is expected.

Let's look at other options. Offshore wind development, for example, makes more sense than wind development in the Appalachian mountains ―in terms of both electricity generation and environmental cost.

Let's redirect the incentives that finance the wind industry. We could achieve much more with support for residential and urban solar development ―something that will actually allow people and communities to assume responsibility for meeting their own electricity needs without harming the environment.

And finally, if we are really serious about solving our energy-related problems, we should expect our elected leaders to adopt energy policies that are based on informed analysis instead of wishful thinking.

Rick Webb is a Senior Scientist in the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia, and he manages the Virginia Wind website.

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