RENEWABLE ENERGY:

Long eclipsed by the West, Eastern states angle to stake claim in development push

The Green Mountain National Forest stretches more than 400,000 acres along the southwestern spine of Vermont, rolling past hills of upland brush and dense stands of sugar and red maples, American beech and yellow birch.

Into this lush environment, on two ridges along the southern Green Mountains, the Forest Service may soon allow construction of a 17-turbine wind farm capable of producing 35 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 16,000 homes.

Though somewhat modest in scale, the Deerfield Wind Project would be the first wind farm built on national forestland.

"It's the first attempt to do something on an industrial-size scale on a national forest in the East," said Bob Bayer, the Forest Service's Deerfield Wind project coordinator.

The project underscores that while the public focus of the Obama administration's push to expand renewable energy has centered mostly on federal lands across the West, where land management agencies are considering dozens of applications for wind and solar projects, some of the most significant renewable energy projects are projected for the eastern half of the United States.

While no state comes close to Texas for wind-power development or California for solar power, many Eastern states rank among the country's most aggressive and active developers of renewable energy.

There are 17 wind projects that have either been completed this year or are under construction in Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The projects total 662 new turbines, with a generating capacity of 1,093 megawatts of electricity -- enough to power about 875,000 homes, according to the American Wind Energy Association, an industry trade group.

"There's a steady stream of projects being proposed and getting started," said Kathy Belyeu, AWEA's manager of industry information in Washington, D.C.

Much of the activity is being driven by the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Last week, the Department of Energy and the Treasury Department announced the first round of stimulus grant money to help build specific renewable projects in the East. Previously, the federal government awarded $650 million in economic stimulus money to 10 East Coast states and the District of Columbia for renewable energy research and development projects.

What's more, many Eastern states have adopted renewable electricity standards that require a certain percentage of a state's electricity come from renewable sources.

That is one reason why last year New Jersey was second to California in installed solar power tied into the electric grid system, according to data compiled by the Solar Energy Industries Association.

"It's a little counterintuitive to what most people might think about where solar activity is located," said Monique Hanis, the trade association's spokeswoman.

East Coast hurdles

There are, however, many drawbacks to renewable energy production with which developers must contend in the Eastern states.

While the Department of Interior has opened up millions of acres of public land to wind, solar and geothermal-power development across the West, there is relatively little federal land in the East. What's more, the region is more heavily developed, and that has made siting large wind farms difficult.

The Highlands Wind project in Virginia is a prime example.

Highland New Wind Development LLC, began the permitting process for the 19-turbine, 38-megawatt wind farm in 2002. But the project only last month began construction after seven years of public hearings and lawsuits from landowners and others concerned that wind turbines built atop a crest on the Allegheny Mountains would degrade views and other cultural resources.

"You can have a project in eastern Colorado and it's likely not going to impact anyone," Belyeu said. "But any project you do in Virginia, you're going to impact people."

Though concerns about the effects of large projects, like industrial scale solar power plants in the Mojave Desert in California, have stalled projects in the West, there are a different set of environmental concerns with East Coast renewable projects.

For example, tens of thousands of bats are killed every year after striking wind turbine blades. The problem, research shows, is most acute in Eastern states, where migrating wood bats are most susceptible to the spinning turbine blades.

Bat concerns are holding up the proposed 124-turbine Beech Ridge wind farm in southeastern West Virginia. The Animal Welfare Institute and Mountain Communities for Responsible Energy have asked a federal judge to halt the project, arguing the 400-foot-tall turbines would violate the Endangered Species Act by killing and injuring endangered Indiana bats.

Spanish-based Iberdrola Renewables, the world's biggest wind-energy provider and the company proposing to build the Deerfield Wind project, has partnered with researchers on a ground-breaking project at its Casselman Wind Project in southwest Pennsylvania. The researchers have discovered that slowing the turbine blades at night, when wind speeds are slowest but bats are out in greatest volume, can significantly reduce bat mortalities due to wind farm operations (Land Letter, May 28).

Bats are also a potential concern at the Deerfield Wind project, and Bayer, the Forest Service project manager, said forest managers at Green Mountain may adopt the same strategy.

But the chief environmental concern associated with the proposed Green Mountain wind farm is that it calls for removing more than 300 American beech trees that black bears depend on for food. It would also fragment well-established bear habitat.

"This is very significant bear habitat inside Vermont, there will be impacts and whether they can recover from that remains to be seen," said Mollie Matteson, conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity in Richmond, Vt.

For Matteson and others, the Deerfield Wind project brings up a much deeper issue: Should public lands be used for renewable energy projects in the East, where the landscape is dominated by private and state lands?

"I think with public lands, especially here where there's a scarcity of them, the priority use should be to preserve the land," Matteson said.

Industry representatives say that is unrealistic.

"We've got to be careful not to take the best lands capable of hosting renewables and then just marking them off the ledger because they are on federal lands," said Frank Maisano, an energy specialist at the Houston-based law firm Bracewell & Giuliani, which represents wind developers and utilities. "We need to be careful we don't do that. They need to be considered and in the mix given the challenges we face meeting demand for renewables."

Offshore renewable technology

Perhaps the biggest potential source of renewable energy sits off the Atlantic Coast in the form of wind, solar and wave-motion technology.

"Offshore development is the thing that's going to increase renewable power production from the East Coast," said Belyeu, the AWEA official.

Research conducted by DOE and the Minerals Management Service shows that some of the best renewable energy development in the country -- and perhaps the world -- is offshore wind-generated power from Maine all the way down to North Carolina.

There are a total of 15 offshore wind-energy projects in various stages of the permitting process off the coasts of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Delaware that, if built, have a generating capacity of 2,626 megawatts -- enough to power about 2.1 million homes, according to AWEA statistics.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said at a public conference in April that the potential for offshore renewable energy is so great that it could replace all the coal-fired power plants in the country.

Scott Streater is a freelance journalist based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

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