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Tall wind turbines in Botetourt will pose no hazard to aircraft, FAA determines

Making tall turbines 130 feet taller will not endanger passing aircraft, the Federal Aviation Administration has determined.

In a step forward for a proposed wind farm in Botetourt County, the FAA found this week that turbines reaching as far as 680 feet into the sky from the top of a mountain would “not constitute a hazard to air navigation.”

It was the second time the agency has determined that the renewable energy project, to be located in a remote and rural spot about 17 miles from the nearest airport, would not pose a threat.

In 2016, it cleared plans to build up to 25 turbines, each one as tall as 550 feet. But construction never started as the developer, Apex Clean Energy of Charlottesville, spent the next three years looking for a customer to buy its power.

By the time a deal was reached with Virginia and Dominion Energy, which will purchase the power and then sell it to the state, new technology allowed fewer – although taller – turbines to produce the same electrical output.

Apex then redrew its plans to include up to 22 turbines as tall as 680 feet atop North Mountain, which required a new round of permits.

The Botetourt County Board of Supervisors approved a special use permit in May. Apex must still obtain a permit from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality before it can start construction of what will be the state’s first on-shore, utility-scale wind farm.

Work could begin this winter, Apex spokeswoman Natasha Montague said Thursday, and be completed by the end of 2021.

A final decision has not been made on the type of turbine Apex will use, which will dictate the exact number and height of the structures. Montague wrote in an email that “we are down to a short list of options.”

As part of DEQ’s process to amend a permit first granted in 2017, public comments will be accepted though Aug. 10. Apex will then respond to the comments. After that, DEQ will have 90 days to act.

Dubbed Rocky Forge, the project will convert wind into enough electricity to serve up to 20,000 homes, Apex has said. In the end, though, the power will be sold to Virginia as part of a wind and solar package that will assist the state in reaching its goal of using green energy for at least 30% of the electricity consumed by state agencies by 2022.

Long-term plans call for Virginia’s two largest utilities, Dominion and Appalachian Power Co., to be completely free of fossil-fuel generated power by 2050.

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.

Although that’s likely to upset 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.

DEQ’s review will focus on the wind farm’s effect on the surrounding mountainous terrain and the plants and animals that inhabit it. In granting a permit in 2017, DEQ required Apex to turn the turbines off from dusk to dawn in the warmer months, to protect flying bats that might otherwise be killed by the spinning blades.

As part of its evaluation, the FAA called for public comments. There were none. But the Department of Defense did note that the wind farm is near or in an area used for its aircraft training exercises.

While the turbines are not expected to interfere with low-flying military jets, the Defense Department requested that the lighting system be compatible with night vision goggles worn by its pilots.