Nearly four years after the seed for a wind farm was planted in Botetourt County, the renewable energy project has yet to take root.
Apex Clean Energy, a Charlottesville company that wants to build as many as 25 wind turbines atop North Mountain, is still looking for a utility or other entity willing to purchase the electricity generated by what would be the first commercial wind farm in Virginia.
“We do not yet have a date for the start of construction but are working steadfastly toward that goal,” said Charlie Johnson, development manager of what Apex is calling Rocky Forge Wind.
Although plans to break ground have been pushed back several times, “we remain committed to the project and are optimistic that it will be brought to fruition,” Johnson said in written replies to questions last week from The Roanoke Times.
Apex has obtained all of the local, state and federal permits it needs for the 75 megawatt facility, and most observers believe that Rocky Forge will eventually find its place in a growing renewable energy market.
“I think there’s a consensus that the project will be built, but not quite as quickly as we all had hoped,” said Jonathan Miles, director of the Center for Wind Energy at James Madison University.
Plans for Rocky Forge became public in early 2015. Apex said it planned to start work the following year on up to 25 turbines – each one as tall as 550 feet, or about the height of the Washington Monument – that would produce enough electricity to power about 20,000 homes starting in 2017.
The delays since then can be attributed to several factors, Miles said.
One of the challenges to face wind farms in recent years is growing competition from solar energy, where advancements in technology have reduced costs dramatically. Another obstacle is unique to states like Virginia, which have less of the steady and strong winds that have been powering turbines in other parts of the country for years.
Wind power has more than tripled over the past decade, with more than 54,000 turbines in 41 states, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
The nine states that don’t have wind turbines are all in the southeastern United States. But more efficiently designed turbines are now allowing the industry to make inroads into places like Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where that state’s first commercial wind farm went online last year.
Once the unknowns are put to rest by the first successful venture, Miles said, more are likely to follow.
“The very hardest wind project that gets built in a state is the first one, and I think that’s what Apex is dealing with right now,” he said.
Since 2005, wind turbine projects have been proposed by other developers in Southwest Virginia, including the counties of Highland, Roanoke and Tazewell. All of the plans eventually stalled.
Some projects faced economic challenges; others were done in by the uncertainty of federal tax credits and other government incentives at the time.
And to some degree, all of them ran into opposition from nearby residents, who said giant turbines on ridgelines would mar scenic landscapes, make too much noise and produce harmful shadow flickers.
But in Botetourt County – where the wind farm would be in a remote wooded area miles from most homes – supporters outnumbered opponents by more than 2-to-1 at a public hearing held by the board of supervisors. The board voted unanimously to approve a special exception permit for Rocky Forge in January 2016.
The permit has a five-year lifespan, and county officials are hoping the project will move forward in the approximately two years that remain.
“Botetourt County remains committed to the Rocky Forge Wind project and looks forward to continue working with Apex Clean Energy to ensure that the project helps to benefit the county in the future,” said board Chairman Jack Leffel.
In addition to advancing the clean energy campaign, county officials could see as much as $4.5 million a year in economic benefits once the wind farm is built, according to projections from Apex.
Critics counter that any positives will be outweighed by negative environmental impacts. And they question whether there is enough wind at the top of North Mountain to make the project economically attractive to a power company shopping for renewable energy.
“Apex’s difficulty in finding investors is an indication that the project lacks viability,” said Steve Neas of Rockbridge County, where a group of citizens opposed to Rocky Forge formed an organization called Virginians for Responsible Energy.
Parts of a 7,000-acre tract of private land to be leased by Apex for the wind farm, about five miles northeast of Eagle Rock, are close to the Botetourt-Rockbridge County line.
Other key approvals for Rocky Forge came from the Federal Aviation Administration, which determined the towering turbines would not endanger passing aircraft, and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which ruled they would not pose an undue risk to wildlife and its surrounding habitat – with one exception.
Acknowledging that the spinning blades could strike flying bats, DEQ accepted a plan proposed by Apex to turn off the turbines at night during the warmer part of the year, when bats are most active.
DEQ’s approval in March 2017 cleared the way for preliminary construction, which would have entailed widening a gravel road up North Mountain to accommodate the transport of pieces of the huge turbines to the summit, where they would be assembled.
Part of that process could not start until after Nov. 15, once bats were in hibernation and not threatened by tree-cutting, blasting and other construction work.
Two mid-Novembers have since passed with no activity on the mountain.
Apex has said it would prefer not to start construction until it has an agreement in place to sell ether the completed wind farm or the electricity it would generate.
While finding a buyer apparently has been more difficult than anticipated, several legal and policy changes in Virginia this year could work to Apex’s advantage.
Gov. Ralph Northam unveiled an energy plan in October that sets goals for renewable energy generation, and an overhaul of utility regulation passed earlier in the year by the General Assembly requires the state’s two largest utilities to use significantly more wind and solar power over the next 10 years.
Last month, Dominion Energy said it was taking bids for facilities that would produce up to 500 megawatts of solar and wind generation, part of a much larger 3,000-megawatt plan prompted by the new law.
Dominion is also proposing an off-shore turbine project in the Atlantic Ocean, although those plans are expected to move more slowly.
For Apex, the recent developments “clearly show that the state has reached a tipping point in bringing clean energy to market,” Johnson said. “We applaud this momentum, which could bring new opportunities to commercialize our wind and solar projects across the state. “
The company is also planning a solar facility in Campbell County and a second wind farm in Pulaski County.
“I do think that Apex recognizes the value of diversifying and investing in both solar and wind,” Miles said. That allows the company to maximize two natural energy resources that have different times of peak production – solar in the summer and wind in the winter.
In Southwest Virginia, opponents of the Mountain Valley Pipeline have been calling for more renewable energy to replace fossil fuels like natural gas and coal, which produce greenhouse gases that cause air pollution and climate change.
But that change likely will come slowly in the United States, which has an established infrastructure of coal-burning power plants built long before the green energy movement caught on.
Those plants will continue to operate for years, while coal and natural gas in particular remain in supply. Meanwhile, the transition to renewables requires better ways to collect and store energy from the sun and wind.
“It cannot happen overnight,” Miles said. “It’s going to be a long process.”