ROANOKE – The developers of a wind farm planned for the top of Poor Mountain in Roanoke County must clear at least a half-dozen regulatory hurdles. One of the big ones – state approval – will soon be lowered.
Under a change in state law that takes effect Jan. 1, wind power projects will benefit from a streamlined application process run by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Currently, applicants must seek approval from the State Corporation Commission.
One of the key differences: Cases will be decided within 90 days, compared with the years it took the SCC to settle a contentious battle over the state’s first permitted wind farm in Highland County.
Invenergy, a Chicago-based company that plans to build as many as 18 turbines atop Poor Mountain, could be one of the first developers to test the new process.
If the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors approves the project, Invenergy would seek a permit from DEQ sometime next year. The company aims to have the 435-foot-tall windmills spinning by late 2012, according to Don Giecek, business development manager.
Although wind power advocates say an expedited regulatory process is needed to encourage alternative energy sources, critics worry that the new system will not fully address their concerns.
Opponents of the Poor Mountain project say ridgetop turbines four times higher than the Mill Mountain star will be an eyesore, kill birds and bats, and generate noise and flickering shadows.
The new application process is called permit-by-rule, meaning a proposed wind project is approved if it meets 14 standard requirements.
Details of the process are still being finalized, and DEQ will consider public comments through Oct. 5 before drafting a rulebook for developers.
Many of the current requirements – such as analyzing the turbines’ impact on wildlife and developing a plan to address it – are preserved in the new process, said Carol Wampler, DEQ’s renewable energy policy manager.
What’s missing for developers is the uncertainty that comes with an adversarial SCC process in which lawyers make arguments, witnesses are cross-examined, and comments from citizens are entered into the record.
Under the new system, “everybody from the public to the developer knows ahead of time exactly what’s going to be required,” Wampler said.
While permit applications will be decided within 90 days, developers will have to spend months, perhaps years, in preparation to satisfy the demands of the permit-by-rule process. Some of the key requirements include approval by the city or county where a wind farm will operate, an agreement with the utility that will buy the wind-generated electricity, an analysis of the environmental impacts, a detailed site plan and the results of a 30-day public comment period.
“I do not see it as a rubber stamp,” said Judy Dunscomb, a senior conservation scientist with The Nature Conservancy who serves on a state panel that helped develop the process.
But Dunscomb has some qualms. For one thing, she wonders whether there is adequate protection for birds and bats that can be killed by spinning turbine blades. Developers will be required to turn their turbines off during peak hours of bat migration, but for no more than 120 hours per machine per year.
That may not be enough for some projects, Dunscomb said.
The Roanoke County project would generate up to 45 megawatts, enough to power as many as 10,000 homes. Plans for turbines are also under way in Wise and Rockingham counties, and a preliminary study will soon begin in Pulaski County.
A proposal to build 19 windmills in Highland County received final clearance earlier this year from the SCC, more than four years after developers sought a permit. The project appears to have stalled, and the developers have declined to say why.
Times writer Cody Lowe contributed to this report.
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