The prospect of large wind turbines spinning atop a mountain ridge is on the horizon in Botetourt County.
Although a detailed plan has yet to take shape, county officials say they are having informal discussions with Apex Clean Energy of Charlottesville, which is interested in building up to 25 turbines for a wind energy project north of Eagle Rock.
As the talks progress, work is under way to draft an ordinance that will govern all potential turbines, which can tower higher than the tallest building in downtown Roanoke.
On Tuesday, Botetourt County’s board of supervisors and planning commission will hold a joint session to begin discussing the rules they’d like wind energy companies to follow.
If the process plays out as it has in other jurisdictions, it will involve weighing the concerns of some citizens – who might object to the sound and looks of the huge windmills – against their benefits, which include generating pollution-free electricity and tax revenue for the county.
While Apex has not made a formal proposal to Botetourt County, officials hope to have an ordinance on the books by late spring.
“It’s better to be proactive rather than reactive,” County Administrator Kathleen Guzi recently told the planning commission.
Guzi identified Apex late Friday afternoon as the developer that is expressing an interest. Attempts to reach company officials were unsuccessful.
However, the company’s website includes some details of what it calls the Rocky Forge Wind Project. The site on North Mountain is not densely populated, and is adjacent to power lines.
While the specifics could change, Apex describes “up to 25 modern, slow-spinning turbines” that could stand as tall as 500 feet, spaced approximately a quarter-mile apart.
The 80-megawatt project is expected to generate enough electricity to power up to 20,000 homes annually.
Over the past five years, at least five wind energy companies have said they were either planning or considering turbine projects in Southwest Virginia, most of them in clusters of about 15 turbines atop mountains in Floyd, Roanoke, Pulaski and Highland counties.
Yet none of the projects has gotten off the ground.
Part of the reason is that the wind does not blow as hard or for as long here as it does in other parts of the United States where turbines have proliferated as part of a green energy movement.
Wind provided 4 percent of the country’s electricity in 2013, and is on track to generate 20 percent by 2030, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
However, the growth has slowed in recent years as the industry faces uncertainties with state and federal policies aimed at promoting renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. The federal production tax credit, which offers a credit of 2.3 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated by a wind farm, was allowed to lapse recently in Congress, where it has led an on-and-off existence.
In Roanoke County, Invenergy announced in 2010 that it planned to build 15 to 18 turbines, each one no taller than 443 feet, on the ridgeline of Poor Mountain. The proposal angered many nearby residents who said it would devalue their property, create an eyesore and make too much noise.
Two years later, after the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors had passed an ordinance that would appear to allow the project, Invenergy said it was postponing its plans until 2015. At the time, it attributed the delay to questions about the production tax credit and other state and federal policies.
Last week, the Chicago-based company had little new to say about its plan.
“As regulatory, tax, and market conditions remain fluid, we continue to assess our development plans for the Poor Mountain Energy Project and do not have an update to provide at this time,” Invenergy spokeswoman Alissa Krinsky wrote in an email.
While Invenergy’s plans appear to be on hold, the controversy they created is lingering. A group of Poor Mountain residents has filed a lawsuit against the board of supervisors that seeks to have the county’s wind ordinance overturned, arguing that the board failed to take their safety and welfare into account. The case is still pending in Roanoke County Circuit Court.
In Pulaski County, Iberdrola Renewables Inc. has dropped its interest in a possible wind project. In 2010, the Spanish company leased land from the Boy Scout’s Blue Ridge Mountain Council so it could build two test towers to gather information about wind strength in the area.
Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman cited regulatory and policy uncertainty in the company’s decision not to go forward.
And in Floyd County, there has been no word recently from several wind energy companies that were scouting for sites four years ago, County Administrator Dan Campbell said.
While many of the developers are biding their time, cities and counties in Virginia have nonetheless been revising their zoning regulations to address turbines. At least 10 jurisdictions have adopted ordinances, according to the Center for Wind Energy at James Madison University.
Restrictions vary by locality. In Roanoke County, the ordinance requires that turbines be placed no closer than 1,000 feet from the nearest home and emit no more than 60 decibels of noise when heard from the nearest property line.
Floyd County had considered more restrictive rules, prohibiting all structures taller than 40 feet from its ridges, but wound up taking no action.
At a meeting last month, the Botetourt County Planning Commission received an overview of the county’s plans, which at the moment are fluid in terms of restrictions on heights, noise levels and setbacks.
Officials will begin to hash out those details at Tuesday’s meeting, and hope to hold a public hearing in May before taking action.
It will be the county’s second crack at developing an ordinance. A preliminary plan was drafted several years ago, but it never went to a public hearing or to the board of supervisors for consideration.
Guzi told the planning commission that there has been a change in the county’s philosophy on wind projects. In 2010, BP caused a stir when it put up a test tower on a possible turbine site on North Mountain without seeking the county’s approval. The board later rejected the company’s retroactive zoning request, and the tower was taken down.
“The frustration with that particular instance, however, is not necessarily indicative of the feelings of the current Board of Supervisors or Planning Commission,” county spokesman Cody Sexton wrote in an email last week.
If Apex purses a project along the lines of what is described on its website, it would entail twice the megawatt output that Invenergy anticipated for its Roanoke County turbines.
“Local wind data confirms that the area under consideration is suitable for a wind energy project,” the website states.
County approval would be just one regulatory hurdle that Apex or any other wind energy company would be required to clear. State approval by the Department of Environmental Quality is also required, and the Federal Aviation Administration might also conduct a review to make sure the turbines would not interfere with the routes of passing airplanes.
Although wind turbines can be lightning rods for controversy, supporters say they are vital to the green energy movement, producing electricity from a free and never-ending source without the kind of pollution associated with coal-burning power plants.
Turbines built last year in the United States are capable of generating 4,854 megawatts of power while reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the tune of taking 28 million cars off the road, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
Localities that allow wind projects can also reap economic benefits.
Botetourt County officials say they have not yet made any projections on possible revenues. But in Roanoke County, Invenergy has said it planned to invest up to $100 million on the turbines, about $3 million of which would be spent on local materials and labor.
And in Highland County, where a similar project won state approval only to stall later, the turbines were expected to produce local tax revenue of $200,000 a year.
Without offering details, Apex says on its website that the financial impact of its Botetourt County project “is likely to be in the millions of dollars over about 30 years, with additional indirect economic benefits greatly exceeding that number.”
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