Once again, what could be the state’s first on-shore wind farm is searching for a buyer of the renewable energy it will produce.
Apex Clean Energy, which plans to build 14 giant wind turbines atop North Mountain in Botetourt County, signed a power purchase agreement with Dominion Energy in late 2019. Dominion had intended to buy the electricity and then sell it to Virginia to help the state meet its clean energy goals.
But the agreement expired Dec. 31, 2021, and Apex says it is now looking for a new buyer.
A decision not to renew the contract was a “mutual agreement” between Apex and Dominion, according to Patrick Chilton, a spokesman for the Charlottesville-based renewable energy company.
Development of the Rocky Forge Wind facility is proceeding. “Rocky Forge has drawn significant market interest and Apex is confident that the project will fully contract in the next few months,” Chilton wrote in an email.
Construction of the long-delayed project is expected to start by the end of this year, possibly as early as late summer. The wind farm, which is expected to produce enough electricity to power up to 20,000 homes, should be in operation by late 2023, Chilton said.
Plans for the Rocky Forge, which originally included up to 25 turbines that would have been smaller than the 612-foot height now proposed, received all of the required local, state and federal approvals by 2017.
But work never began as Apex searched for a buyer.
In October 2019, then-Gov. Ralph Northam announced that Virginia would purchase the electricity from Dominion to help it meet a goal of getting at least 30% of the electricity consumed by the state’s agencies and executive branch from renewable sources by late 2022.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and supply chain issues again slowed plans for Rocky Forge.
Chilton said the decision to let the power purchase agreement with Dominion lapse was not related to the departure of Northam, a Democrat, and his replacement by Republican Glenn Youngkin.
“We were excited to work with Governor Youngkin’s administration on this project, but the level of interest in the market was something we could not ignore,” he wrote in his email.
Attempts to reach Youngkin’s office were not immediately successful Wednesday.
A spokeswoman for Dominion declined to comment, saying the utility could not talk about its discussions with another business.
If plans for the wind farm finally get off the ground this year, Apex will first have to survive legal challenges brought by Virginians for Responsible Energy, a group of citizens in Botetourt and Rockbridge counties.
Opposition to the industrial-scale utility includes concerns that the turbines – which will be about twice as tall as the Wells Fargo tower in downtown Roanoke – will mar the scenic landscape, create harmful low-frequency sound, devalue nearby properties and pose a threat to the surrounding flora and fauna.
The wind farm would be located on a nearly 7,000-acre isolated parcel about five miles northeast of Eagle Rock, near the county line.
Virginians for Responsible Energy is contesting an approval by the state Department of Environmental Quality, alleging among other things that the agency failed to consider the turbines’ threat to golden eagles. A hearing is set for March 11.
In a filing earlier this month, the group mentioned the expiration of the contract with Dominion. “Today, Rocky Forge has no buyer for the modest amount of energy the project would theoretically generate,” Evan Mayo, an attorney for the opponents, wrote.
Jeff Scott of Virginians for Responsible Energy said it’s questionable if Apex will be able to attract any investors.
“It is time for Apex to do the responsible thing and cancel Rocky Forge, and go somewhere that actually has sufficient wind and won’t destroy an environmentally and scenically significant mountain ridge,” Scott wrote in an email.
A second lawsuit by the group takes issue with Botetourt County’s board of zoning appeals, which determined last year that Apex qualified for a statewide extension of planning and zoning deadlines. The General Assembly voted to give plans slowed by the pandemic until this July 1 to be approved.
Apex had missed a deadline of May 26, 2021, for final approval by the county of its site plan.
The company has since overcome the pandemic-related delays and submitted a final plan to the county, Chilton said. A spokeswoman for the county said the documents are being reviewed.
Once the plans are approved, Chilton said Apex will proceed to close the financing for the project and begin construction.
The Sierra Club supports Rocky Forge and a second wind farm that Apex is planning in Pulaski County. That project, to be located on land owned by the Boy Scouts of America, is still in the preliminary stages.
Virginia is one of just nine states that does not have at least one on-shore wind farm. Dominion is planning a large development off the coast of Virginia Beach, and two pilot turbines began spinning last year.
Although for years the wind in Virginia and other southern states was not considered strong enough to support wind energy, improvements in technology are changing that.
“Just seeing renewables will nurture hope in most people,” said Dan Crawford, chair of the Sierra Club’s Roanoke group. “These big steps energize the Sierra Club’s efforts toward a sustainable future.”
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