Wind farms are now common in some western and Midwestern states, and that form of energy is actually cheaper than power produced with coal. Virginia could see its first wind farm on a ridge near Roanoke, but area residents and environmentalists are raising red flags over plans to install 25 turbines.
Sandy Hausman has the story.
Botetourt County sits at the southern gateway to the Shenandoah Valley – a scenic and historic part of Virginia, home to farms and mountains, Civil War trails and small towns like Fincastle and Buchanan. David Emeigh is a part-time preacher with a heating and air conditioning business that keeps him on the road much of the time, but he wouldn’t live anywhere else.
“Many people say, ‘Why in the world do you live this far out. Why do you drive 45-50 minutes to get to Roanoke?’ and the reality is people love this part of the county. It’s one of the prettiest parts of the country.”
So he was worried when he heard that Charlottesville-based Apex Clean Energy hoped to develop a wind farm along a ridge maybe ten miles from his house.
“Several years ago there was somebody who wanted to put in a pork processing plant up in this end of the county, and they were told that the town fathers wanted to keep the industry at the south end to protect the agriculture and wilderness and the mountainous areas.”
But when the board of supervisors considered an ordinance that would allow for wind farm construction, Apex executive Tyson Utt says public opinion appeared to favor the idea.
“The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an ordinance. About 55 folks showed up in support of the project.”
County attorney Mike Lockabay says the law that was passed does not guarantee that this project will go forward.
“It’s an ordinance that opens the path for someone to apply for a permit that the board might or might not grant or grant with conditions.”
But the American Bird Conservancy’s Michael Hutchins isn’t willing to wait and see. He wants plenty of research done before any projects are approved, because eagles, hawks and other raptors ride the winds over Botetout’s mountain ridges.
“Eagles have incredible eyesight, and they could potentially avoid turbines, however they are looking at the ground for their prey and they often are not paying attention to these very rapidly moving blades.”
Birds migrating at night or in fog can also be killed, and even bats with their sonar fall victim to the spinning blades. The conservancy has a map of places suitable for wind farms, places that should be ruled out, and places like Botetourt County where development could be deadly.
“I don’t think we need to have a moratorium, but we need to do a better job of sighting these things properly so that they don’t pose a major risk to birds and bats.”
Apex has promised to do that, and Tyson Utt says there are technologies that could further reduce the risk – radar systems that will shut turbines down when flocks of birds are coming their way and conditions that should prompt protective action for bats.
“We now understand the times and conditions in which bats are active on wind projects, and so when weather conditions are right and bats might be active, they can curtail the project and really minimize the chances of having a death occur.”
But Hutchins cites studies that suggest nearly 1.5 million birds and bats are killed each year by wind turbines, and he says government reliance on industry to monitor the situation is a mistake.
“Developers hide this data from the public, so it’s very difficult to get this data.”
David Emeigh also worries about the impact of low frequency sound produced by turbines and points out that these massive wind mills do sometimes catch fire, posing another risk to the public. These and other issues are likely to come out in court, now that he and seven other residents have sued the Botetourt County board, alleging its members didn’t do enough to protect their constituents.
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