By Cecelia Smith-Schoenwalder
Although Botetourt County officials have approved the wind turbine project on North Mountain, it still needs approval from federal and state agencies.
Some Rockbridge area residents are still not sold on the project, which would put 25 sleek wind turbines taller than the Statue of Liberty atop the iconic ridgeline.
The project would produce 75 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power the typical energy use of 20,000 homes each year. It would be Virginia’s first utility-scale wind energy project, but 40 other states already have such wind farms.
On Jan. 26, Botetourt County’s Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the “Rocky Forge Wind” project, in defiance of Rockbridge County officials pleading for a delay to hear from Rockbridge area neighbors on the other side of the county line.
This project, which was designed by Apex Clean Energy out of Charlottesville, will cost over $100 million, according to Apex spokesperson Kevin Chandler. The construction is funded through private investment, he said.
Rockbridge County has had mixed reactions to the project, which would be visible from the county.
The Rockbridge Board of Supervisors has asked Rockbridge Area Conservation Council to review the project and report its findings.
Barbara Walsh, executive director of RACC, said that most RACC members would usually approve of alternative energy like wind power. However, she said they have found some unanticipated issues with the plan.
“It’s with a bit of a heavy heart that we are recognizing the problems with this particular proposal,” she said.
According to Walsh, these issues include relatively low wind productivity for the region and risks for certain threatened species.
“Some of the concerns are coming up because of this particular location . . . The wind resource is only so-so . . . and it does not provide the same kind of energy production as other locations would.”
Apex’s next step for the project is submitting an application to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Chandler says this will happen “soon.” The project application will address the effects of the turbines on nearby ecosystems and species, among other things.
Timothy Keefer is a Rockbridge County resident who is concerned about the impact these tall structures might have on the Eastern American Golden Eagle population.
He says the project is located in a concentrated migration and nesting area for the eagles.
“The siting of a wind farm in this area has the potential to be catastrophic for this unique population of a protected and beloved species,“ he said in an email read at a Rockbridge Board of Supervisors meeting on Jan. 25.
Apex’s proposal lists the turbines at 550 feet tall. For reference, the Statue of Liberty is just over 305 feet tall, and the Washington Monument is 555 feet tall.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, building high turbines allows the turbines to produce larger amounts of energy from the windier parts of the atmosphere.
However, any structure over 499 feet is automatically labeled a potential navigation hazard, so the Federal Aviation Administration must review and approve it.
Chandler says he does not expect the turbines to be ruled a hazard after the formal FAA review is finished.
With Botetourt’s approval came 17 conditions for the project from the Botetourt County Planning Commission. The conditions included limits on construction hours, plans for vegetation conservation and studies on the sound and shadow flicker produced by turbines once they are completed.
Among those who spoke at the Rockbridge Board of Supervisors meeting earlier this year were RACC co-president Lee Merrill.
Merrill said the project would dissect the ridge-top ecosystem on North Mountain, which he said was a part of the least developed forest in the Virginia landscape. He said disturbing this natural wildlife corridor between the Alleghany Highlands and Blue Ridge Mountains could result in habitat loss for plants and animals.
According to the American Wind Energy Association, in 2012, wind energy in the U.S. offset 87,000 metric tons of sulfur dioxide and 61,000 metric tons of nitrogen oxides. The wind turbines installed in the U.S. as of 2012 offset almost 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year — the equivalent of taking 17 million cars off the roads.
The power generated would go into a grid operated by Dominion Virginia Power. Chandler says it is too early to tell who will purchase the power generated from the project.
The project would create 200 full-time jobs during construction and seven permanent jobs through the 25-30 year life of the project.
Botetourt County would get millions of dollars in tax revenue over the 25-30 years, according to Apex’s website.