Wind turbines nearly as tall as the Washington Monument standing on top of North Mountain in Botetourt County will not pose a danger to passing aircraft, the Federal Aviation Administration has determined.
The finding, issued after nearly a year of study, is a key step forward for Apex Clean Energy, which plans to build what would be Virginia’s first commercial wind farm on the remote ridgeline.
At first, the FAA ruled in January that the 25 turbines – each one as tall as 549 feet – would be a hazard. But that was based on a standard rule that presumes any structure taller than 499 feet would interfere with air navigation.
Further evaluation found that the Rocky Forge Wind project “would have no substantial adverse effect on the safe and efficient utilization of the navigable airspace by aircraft or the operation of air navigation facilities,” according to 25 determinations, one for each turbine, posted Friday on the FAA’s website.
The proposed location of the windmills is far from public airports, where arriving and departing airplanes fly at lower elevations.
Passing small aircraft would likely be several thousand feet above the wind farm, and commercial jets much higher than that, according to Jim White, interim manager of Ingalls Field Airport in Hot Springs, which at 17 miles away is the closest public airport to the site.
“Unless you were running along the ridges for some strange reason, it wouldn’t affect us,” White said.
As a condition for its approval, the FAA said the turbines should be marked with white paint and equipped with synchronized red lights to make them more visible to pilots. While that’s likely to concern some wind farm opponents – who say the giant windmills will be an eyesore and a threat to the environment – those concerns fell outside of the aviation agency’s purview.
“Comments must be relevant to the effect the structure would have on aviation,” the FAA said in a notice earlier this year that it would solicit public reaction.
Of nine comments received, seven were opposed to the wind farm. Most of the concerns cited unpredictable weather that could make the turbines hard to see for pilots not relying on instrument flight rules.
“This area is challenging for aviators due to weather conditions (i.e., sudden deterioration of VFR [visual flight rule] conditions, frequent fog and wind) and the terrain itself,” according to a summary of the concerns included in the FAA’s report.
“The Appalachians can cause spatial disorientation in pilots who are not familiar with flying in the mountains in combination with weather patterns that can result in clouds or mist suddenly appearing along ridgetops and valleys.”
However, the FAA’s report noted that its review of radar data in the area indicated that the turbines would not impact a significant number of aircraft flying at low altitudes by visual flight rules.
As for concerns about medical emergency helicopters passing over the turbines, helicopters have “special maneuvering characteristics” and generally fly at speeds that allow their pilots to spot and avoid obstructions, the FAA’s report stated.
The FAA sought public comments after Apex asked the agency to reconsider its finding in January that the turbines were a presumed hazard, based on their height alone.
During negotiations that followed, the FAA asked if Apex would be willing to reduce the height of its windmills to 499 feet. But the wind farm developer said it needed taller turbines to fully capture wind strengths over North Mountain, and a more detailed study eventually found they would not have an adverse impact on air navigation.
In a statement Monday, Apex said the decision “reflects the suitability of the Rocky Forge Wind project area for wind energy.”
“We’ll continue to work with the other state and federal agencies reviewing the project, and we are committed to developing the best possible project here in the Commonwealth.”
The Charlottesville company still must obtain a permit from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, a review that will likely apply the most stringent scrutiny to the wind farm’s impact on wildlife and its habitat.
Apex is still looking for a utility or other customer to purchase the electricity generated by the turbines, which it says will be enough to power up to 20,000 homes.
Although the plan has generated some complaints in Botetourt County and neighboring Rockbridge County, opposition has not been as strong as for other turbine projects proposed for more populated areas.
The turbines would sit on nearly 7,000 acres of private, forested land about 5 miles northeast of Eagle Rock. There are few homes in the area, and the closest one is more than a mile away.
Supporters for the wind farm outnumbered detractors when the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors approved a special-exception permit for the project in January, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe has voiced support for the project as part of a statewide energy plan that relies on renewable sources such as solar and wind.
Apex has said it hopes to have the wind farm in operation by the end of 2018.
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