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Beech Ridge wind plant expansion on track for siting certificate

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The Public Service Commission of West Virginia ruled Feb. 28 from the bench in favor of more West Virginia wind power.

At a hearing on a joint stipulation among the parties to the case for a proposed expansion of Beech Ridge Energy's Greenbrier County wind plant, the commission asked the company to prepare a proposed order.

It's not a siting certificate, but one step short of it.

The first phase of the Beech Ridge plant provoked controversy over birds and bats, viewshed and other concerns from the time of its application in 2005 through 2009. The project, eventually reduced from an original 124 turbines to 67, was placed in service in 2010.

The proposal for this $115 million, 33-turbine expansion, filed with the commission in August, has found more acceptance. A January public hearing on the project drew just three speakers, one of whom was with the project, all in favor.

Two of the most prominent concerns that have come up in West Virginia wind plant cases — bird and bat mortality and noise — are addressed varyingly in the joint stipulation among the parties to the case: Beech Ridge Energy II, the PSC Staff and the West Virginia Building and Construction Trades Council.

Bird and bat mortality has probably been the most controversial topic across all West Virginia wind power cases. That is reflected in the fact that Beech Ridge Energy II devoted fully 680 pages of its 966-page application to a bird and bat risk assessment at the site, to mortality studies conducted at other wind plants, and to other literature on the topic.

The joint stipulation requires three years of bird and bat mortality studies after the expansion is in operation and, if significant impacts are found, that adaptive management strategies be pursued.

Wind turbine noise became a particular problem for residents living near the Pinnacle wind plant after it was placed in service in Keyser in January 2012. The commission dismissed complaints filed by residents because, since it had not placed conditions on sound in the siting certificate, it said, it did not have jurisdiction.

In the Beech Ridge Energy II joint stipulation, the only reference that might address wind turbine noise is oblique, stating that the commission can re-open the certificate for investigation if the project does not operate within parameters established in the application.

Noise parameters were laid out in a study conducted by Acentech acoustic consultants of Cambridge, Mass. and included in the application.

Acentech concluded that noise at the nearest home, about 1,600 feet, or about one-third mile, from a turbine, would not exceed 47 A-weighted decibels, the standard measure of environmental noise — considerably lower than the 56 dBA Acentech predicted for the most-affected landowner near the Pinnacle plant.

It is unclear whether the reference in the joint stipulation to operating within parameters established in the application would offer the commission jurisdiction for protecting residents if complaints arose.

Twenty-one homes lie within a mile of the project and PSC spokesperson Susan Small pointed out that no one has filed concerns about the proposal.