GREENBRIER COUNTY, W.Va. — Workers atop mountain ridges are putting together 389-foot windmills with massive blades that will turn Appalachian breezes into energy. Retiree David Cowan is fighting to stop them.
Because of the bats.
Cowan, 72, a longtime caving fanatic who grew to love bats as he slithered through tunnels from Maine to Maui, is asking a federal judge in Maryland to halt construction of the Beech Ridge wind farm. The lawsuit pits Chicago-based Invenergy Wind LLC, a company that produces green energy, against environmentalists who say the price to nature is too great.
The rare green vs. green case went to trial Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.
It is the first court challenge to wind power under the Endangered Species Act, lawyers on both sides say. With President Obama’s goal of doubling renewable energy production by 2012, wind and solar farms are rapidly expanding. As they do, battles are being waged to reach the right balance between the benefits of clean energy and the impact on birds, bats and even the water supply.
At the heart of the Beech Ridge case is the Indiana bat, a brownish gray creature that weighs about as much as three pennies and, wings outstretched, measures about 8 inches. A 2005 estimate concluded there were about 457,000 of them, half the number as when they were first listed as endangered in 1967.
“Any kind of energy development is going to have environmental impacts that are going to concern somebody,” said John Echeverria, a Vermont Law School professor who specializes in environmental law and isn’t involved in the lawsuit. “This has been an issue for the environmental community. They are enthusiastic; at the same time they realize there are these adverse impacts.”
Indiana bats hibernate in limestone caves within several miles of the wind farm, which would provide energy to tens of thousands of households. The question before the judge: Would the endangered bats fly in the path of the 122 turbines that will be built along a 23-mile stretch of mountaintop?
Invenergy argues there is no sign that Indiana bats come to the ridge. When a consultant put up nets at or near the site, no Indiana bats were captured.