Rick Webb (Grad ’88) has spent much of his professional life addressing environmental problems related to coal. Before coming to UVA for graduate study in environmental sciences, he was an activist in the coal fields of West Virginia. After earning his master’s degree, he continued researching acid rain’s degradation of mountain streams—mostly attributed to emissions from coal-fired power plants—as projects coordinator for the Shenandoah Watershed Study. So it stands to reason that Webb might be excited about the prospects of wind power, a renewable energy source with no harmful emissions that may offset our reliance on coal.
Instead, he worries about wind, too. In his spare time, Webb co-manages the Web site Virginia Wind (www.vawind.org), which advocates careful environmental assessment before building utility-scale wind farms on Appalachian ridges. These days, he’s focused on a 39-megawatt project proposed for a mountain in Highland County, nicknamed “Little Switzerland” for its majestic mountain wilderness. Originally proposed in 2002, the 19-turbine array—which would become the first large-scale wind-power venture in Virginia—won approval in March from a State Corporation Commission hearing examiner. It still needs a final ruling from the full SCC, though that may be delayed until after the State Supreme Court rules on a legal challenge to the Highland County Board of Supervisors’ approval of the $60 million project. The court is expected to hear the case in June.
Webb’s take: while wind energy may be a partial solution to what he sees as an energy crisis, the electricity produced by turbines built atop pristine Appalachian ridges won’t make enough of a meaningful contribution to offset their environmental harm.
His position has earned him the enmity of a few people within the environmental community and some of his Highland neighbors, who see a chance to enhance the tax base of the county, one of the most sparsely populated east of the Mississippi River. “I’ve got people asserting that I have to be pro-coal—I’m not sure what that even means—or that I’m the ‘best friend of the coal industry,’” says Webb. “That’s ridiculous.”
Gleaming, slowly spinning wind turbines are seen as symbols of hope, futuristic harbingers of clean modernity. But Webb sees a different picture: ridges clear-cut to make way for towering turbines of up to 550 feet tall; wilderness habitats disrupted by three- to five-acre turbine sites and by networks of service roads and power transmission lines; unwary birds and bats killed by colliding with turbine blades spinning at more than 200 mph.
In his eyes, it’s too high a price to pay for too little a benefit. “I’d be more willing to accept the level of trade-off if I believed that wind development on the Appalachian ridges would make a significant difference in solving the problems related to our production of energy,” Webb says. He argues against proposed legislation in Virginia that would mandate that at least 9 percent of the state’s energy come from renewable sources by 2020 because that quota would have to come almost entirely from wind power—and Webb estimates that it would take at least 3,500 of the 400-foot turbines to satisfy the need. Spaced typically at eight per mile, they would cover more than 400 miles of ridgeline.
Wind energy is also unstable. When the wind doesn’t blow, power must come from other sources—most likely coal, Webb suggests, meaning that those plants would continue to operate and, given increasing demand for electricity, more would have to be built. Electricity demand is greatest in mid-winter and mid-summer; while wind is usually plentiful in the winter, August—the time of highest power demand—is Virginia’s calmest month.
Webb has his critics, even within the environmental community. Alden Hathaway (Engr ’82) of Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Resources Trust, says that Webb’s “narrow anti-wind views [are] based on some very shaky environmental claims.”
Wind-generated electricity directly reduces the load from coal-powered plants, which in turn reduces the need for coal, Hathaway argues. And while he acknowledges that wind turbines alter mountaintop ecosystems, they are far less destructive than the mountaintop-removal method of mining coal. He estimates the each wind turbine offsets the need for 40 to 50 acres of coalfields.
As for turbines killing birds and bats, “So do cats and cars, but we’re not banning cats, and we’re not banning cars,” Hathaway says. In fact, the National Audubon Society recently offered a strong endorsement of wind power.
Webb is sticking to his guns. He argues that other sources of renewable energy should be explored, while making greater efforts at energy conservation. He even allows that appropriately sited wind power—perhaps generated offshore—may have a place in the mix.
“I believe that global warming—climate change—is a serious issue we need to address,” he says. “I think promoting wind development on the Appalachian ridges as a solution is a bit disingenuous. People might say ‘It’s part of the solution’ or ‘It’s a step in the right direction’ or ‘Every little bit helps,’ but the answer to that is ‘Sometimes, not very much.’”