Rocky Forge turbines

This computer simulation shows what the Rocky Forge wind farm would look like from a residence 1.1 miles away.

FINCASTLE — A renewable energy company has revised its plan to build wind turbines on a Botetourt County ridgeline, making them nearly 700 feet tall.

The latest proposal by Apex Clean Energy exceeds the maximum turbine height of 550 feet approved nearly three years ago and would require an amended permit from the county’s board of supervisors.

In an Oct. 31 letter to county Planning Director Nicole Pendleton, a representative for Apex wrote changes in technology will allow for fewer turbines — about 22 as opposed to 25 — but at a height of up to 680 feet.

“While wind energy projects are common in the western United States, the east coast wind energy production has not proceeded as quickly,” Adena Patterson, a senior planner for the McGuireWoods law firm in Richmond, wrote in the letter.

Because the Rocky Forge facility atop North Mountain would be the state’s first onshore industrial wind farm, an extended planning process has led to the most recent changes, Patterson wrote.

Apex, which is based in Charlottesville and has a solar farm project slated for 1,200 acres near Altavista, also is seeking a two-year extension of the county’s special exception permit, which will expire in January 2021.

At 550 feet, the turbines would be about as tall as the Washington Monument. At 680 feet, they would be closer to a 50-story skyscraper.

While critics of wind farms call them eyesores that produce noise and flickering shadows, opposition in Botetourt has not been as strong as in other localities. When the board approved a permit for Rocky Forge at a meeting in January 2016, supporters outnumbered opponents more than 2-1.

Some of the more organized protests came from residents of Rockbridge County, which is closer to the wind farm than the more populated parts of Botetourt County.

With higher turbines, “all of the impacts increase — viewshed, shadow flicker, noise, the impacts to birds and bats,” Steve Neas, who lives about 3 miles from the proposed wind farm, said Thursday. He is a member of a group formed to fight it, Virginians for Responsible Energy.

In its application, Apex wrote that computer simulations show the turbines’ increased height will make their structure and blades more visible at short range. But at a longer distance from the remote location, such as in Fincastle and Daleville, the height difference would be far less noticeable.

Other factors, such as noise and shadow flicker, would be about the same and well within the ordinance’s guidelines, Apex said.

Before the higher turbines could be built, Botetourt County must first make changes to an ordinance that governs wind farms. A separate process would then be held to consider amending the permit for Rocky Forge.

No date has been scheduled for the first step, which would involve the board of supervisors directing the planning commission to take up changes to the ordinance. The next board meeting is Nov. 26. County officials said this week they were reviewing the application.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which reviewed the wind farm’s affect on the surrounding land and its wildlife, issued a permit in March 2017. The state’s approval required the turbines to be turned off at night during the warmer months, to reduce the number of bats being struck by the spinning blades.

DEQ must also consider the increased heights of the turbines as part of a modified permit, spokeswoman Ann Regn said. That would not happen until there’s an approval from Botetourt County.

After DEQ signed off on the project, Apex said it planned to have the turbines spinning by 2018. But a start to construction was put off several times as the company searched for a utility or other buyer for the 75 megawatts of electricity to be produced by Rocky Forge.

That fell into place last month, when the state of Virginia announced it would purchase the output of the wind farm and four solar farms from Dominion Energy. The agreement was billed as a way to help Virginia meet its goal of getting at least 30% of the electricity consumed by the state’s agencies and executive branch from renewable sources by 2022.

“It sounds like a good idea,” Neas said. “Everybody wants to wear the green ribbon on their lapel.”

But enough shortcomings remain with wind energy, including its intermittent output and the lack of a way to store the electricity it produces, to raise questions about the wisdom of projects like Rocky Forge, Neas said.

Apex remains confident in the wind farm’s viability, writing in its letter to Botetourt County that adding an extra two years to the permit’s lifespan would provide “additional cushion in the timeline to allow for any unforeseen schedule delays.”

The project currently is on schedule to begin operations by the end of 2021.

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