The sight of wind turbines atop Roanoke County’s highest mountain – a view dreamed of by some and dreaded by others – is at least three years away.
Invenergy, a Chicago-based wind energy company with plans to build 15 to 18 giant windmills on Poor Mountain, has pushed its target date to 2015.
The company, which once hoped to have the power-generating turbines spinning by the end of this year, said its decision was based on the uncertain future of government incentives for wind energy.
“Due to the uncertainty associated with the federal production tax credit renewal, the lack of a mandatory renewable energy standard, and public policies regulating wind energy in Virginia, Invenergy now is targeting a commercial operation date for the project sometime in 2015,” Nazre Adum, the company’s director of business development, said in a written statement.
Invenergy’s announcement was seen as a setback for local supporters of renewable energy, but good news for some Poor Mountain residents, who fear that the 443-foot-tall turbines will be a noisy eyesore to their peaceful community.
The delay coincides with a national lull in wind energy development.
“The industry is in a bit of a funk right now,” said Jonathan Miles, director of the Center for Wind Energy at James Madison University in Harrisonburg.
“This is the challenge with these government incentives that are somewhat intermittent.”
Wind power advocates say one of the most pressing issues is the fate of the federal production tax credit, which will expire at the end of the year unless renewed by Congress.
The tax credit – 2.2 cents for every kilowatt-hour of power produced – has been vital in lowering the cost of producing wind power, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
Because a wind farm must be up and running to reap those benefits, and because they could expire by the end of the year, there’s little incentive now to start new projects.
“Failure to extend the PTC [production tax credit] will lead to significant job losses and roll back progress that we have made as a nation to diversify the U.S. electricity portfolio,” the American Wind Energy Association says on its website.
Since wind energy was first introduced in the Western United States four decades ago, the amount of power produced by turbines has steadily increased and now represents 2.9 percent of the nation’s electricity.
States such as Virginia, once considered not windy enough for developers to make a profit, are now seen as viable because of improvements in turbine technology.
The state currently has no commercial wind farm.
Nearly five years ago, the State Corporation Commission approved a 19-turbine wind farm in Highland County. That project seems to have stalled; a call to the developer was not returned last week.
Other potential projects in Pulaski, Floyd, Rockingham and Wise counties are still in the very preliminary stages.
Of the 18 turbines that Invenergy planned to build on leased land at the top of Poor Mountain, 15 have been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Getting a determination by the FAA that the turbines – taller than Roanoke’s highest skyscraper – will not interfere with passing aircraft was one of the first regulatory hurdles for Invenergy.
The company withdrew its request for the remaining three turbines that the FAA expressed concerns about. It seemed poised to apply for a special-use permit for a 15-turbine wind farm after the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance regulating commercial wind farms last year.
But since the ordinance was adopted, “we haven’t heard a word” from the company, said Philip Thompson, deputy director of planning for the county.
After declining to comment on its plans several months ago, Invenergy released a statement last week in response to a question from The Roanoke Times.
In explaining its decision to delay the project for three years, the company mentioned the lack of a mandatory renewable energy standard in Virginia.
Some states require power companies to get a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources. Virginia has a voluntary program that calls for utilities to get 15 percent of their 2007 sales from renewable energy – such as wind, solar and hydroelectric – by 2025.
To those who say more renewable energy is needed to curb pollution from coal and other fossil fuels, it came as little surprise that companies such as Invenergy are scaling back their plans in the absence of clear government incentives.
“Of course, we’re disappointed that this is being pushed out to the future, but it’s very understandable,” said Mark McClain, a board member of the Roanoke Valley Cool Cities Coalition, one of at least six organizations that support the Poor Mountain wind farm.
Congress has allowed the production tax credit to expire in the past, only to renew it later – but not before installations of new wind farms dropped, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
“There needs to be a constant, level playing field,” McClain said.
With Congress often gridlocked and the presidential election looming, the debate over energy is “all connected to politics, in some fashion,” said Miles of the Center for Wind Energy.
“But at the end of the day, politics aside, the wind industry is going to stand on its own merits,” he said. “I think wind is going to continue to sell itself by virtue of its stable costs.”
Assuming that Invenergy follows up on its plans for the Poor Mountain wind farm, it would have to win zoning approval from Roanoke County before seeking a state permit from the Department of Environmental Quality.
The company could not say last week when it might seek county approval in order to meet its target operation date of 2015.
Still to be resolved are concerns about how the turbines might affect wildlife, natural resources and residents on the mountain.
Steven Hanes, one of the Poor Mountain residents who is fighting the proposal, said he was encouraged by Invenergy’s three-year delay.
“In my view, the longer this goes on, the longer there will be for the public to become better informed,” Hanes said.
While offshore locations and more remote areas might be well suited for wind power, he said, Poor Mountain is not.
“I’m not anti-wind,” Hanes said. “I am anti-industrial wind in the wrong places.”
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