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 hurdles – approval by the state – 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 quasi-judicial State Corporation Commission.
One of the key differences: Cases will be decided within 90 days, compared with 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 clean energy company that plans to build up to 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 the 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 almost five times taller than the Mill Mountain Star will be an eyesore, kill birds and bats, and generate noise and flickering shadows.
“Some things do get lost in streamlining, because, if there’s a site-specific concern, it may not get picked up,” said Ivy Main, chairwoman of the renewable energy section of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter.
The new application process is called permit-by-rule, meaning a proposed wind project is approved administratively if it meets 14 standard requirements.
Details of the process are still being finalized, and the DEQ will consider public comments through Oct. 5 before drafting a rule book for developers.
Many of the current requirements – such as analyzing the turbines’ effects on wildlife and developing a plan to address them – are preserved in the new process, said Carol Wampler, the 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. “I think the applicants are still going to have to do a good bit of work.”
But Dunscomb has some qualms. For one thing, she wonders if 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.
Some critics also take issue with the definition of a small wind power project, which the DEQ process will govern. Small projects are designated as those producing less than 100 megawatts of electricity – which could amount to nearly 50 turbines stretching along miles of ridgeline.
“People could certainly differ as to whether that is small,” Dunscomb said.
The Roanoke County project would generate up to 45 megawatts, enough to power as many as 10,000 homes. Invenergy officials are waiting for approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, which will review the towers’ impact on airplanes approaching and leaving the Roanoke Regional Airport.
Giecek said he hopes to get a ruling from the FAA by November. Assuming Invenergy clears that hurdle, the company will apply for a special-use permit from the county.
Of all the agencies and bodies to examine the project, the board of supervisors may be the most responsive to the concerns of local citizens. Already, the county staff is studying the effects of wind turbines and considering new rules to regulate them.
A draft probably won’t be ready before late this year or early 2011, said lead planner Lindsay Blankenship. The planning commission will consider the ordinance – which will take into account factors such as noise, height of the structures, and other effects on nearby property owners – and then forward a recommendation to the board of supervisors.
Should Invenergy win approval from the county, it would be one of just a handful of wind energy developers in Virginia identified so far that could be seeking permits from the DEQ. Plans for turbines are 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.
Meanwhile, the DEQ is also drafting rules for offshore wind projects, which, so far, have stirred up less controversy than mountaintop windmills.
“You don’t have the same bird and bat issues, and you don’t have people complaining about the view,” Main of the Sierra Club said, “so that’s where we think the real potential will be.”
Staff writer Cody Lowe contributed to this report.
Energy group eyes Boy Scout property
A wind energy company is scouting turbine sites in Southwest Virginia, including one on a Boy Scout reservation in Pulaski County.
Iberdrola Renewables Inc. recently signed a lease agreement with the Blue Ridge Mountains Council, the governing body for local Boy Scout chapters, that allows it to construct two test towers on the 15,000-acre reservation.
The 195-foot meteorological towers will collect climate data that Iberdrola Renewables, based in Spain, will evaluate over the next few years before deciding whether to pursue a wind power project on the land.
“Any of the work we are doing is very, very early-stage work at this point,” said Iberdrola Renewables spokesman Paul Copleman. The company is also evaluating other sites in Southwest Virginia, he said.
Although no deal has been reached with the Boy Scouts, Copleman said the company is encouraged by the fact that the organization is allowing the research towers.
The towers will be located on a backcountry area and will not be visible from Camp Powhatan and Camp Ottari, the two sites that host Boy Scout events, said John Johnson, president of the Blue Ridge council.
“Our council has been blessed with the good fortune to have this land available for our use, and, as stewards of the land, we are conscious of the need to manage our resources wisely,” Johnson said. The venture could benefit the scouting program and help its participants “become conservation-minded adults,” he said.
Iberdrola operates more than 40 wind farms in the United States, ranging from 12 to 168 turbines.
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