Plans for the first onshore wind farm in the state, high on a mountain ridge in Botetourt County, are finally getting off the ground.
The Commonwealth of Virginia has reached an agreement to purchase electricity generated by up to 25 turbines, each one about 550 feet tall, to be built by Apex Clean Energy in a remote spot atop North Mountain.
In announcing the first-of-its-kind deal, Gov. Ralph Northam said it will 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.
The agreement also provides a long-sought purchaser of 75 megawatts of electricity to be produced by wind turbines built by Apex, a Charlottesville company that obtained all of the permits needed for the project two and a half years ago.
Since then, Apex has not begun construction while it has searched for a utility or other buyer to make the project commercially feasible.
The company now says it plans to begin construction next year and have the wind farm completed by 2021.
Virginia’s purchase, which also includes electricity from four solar farms elsewhere in the state, is the largest state contract for renewable energy in the country, Northam said.
“I’m proud that our state government is leading by example in cutting emissions, investing in clean energy and ensuring a healthy world for future generations,” the governor said in a statement released Friday.
Virginia will purchase 420 megawatts of electricity from Dominion Energy, which in turn will get it from the wind and solar facilities as part of a renewable power purchase mechanism approved by the State Corporation Commission.
In September, Northam signed an executive order that spelled out goals for statewide energy production.
Long-term plans call for Virginia to power 30% of the state’s electric grid with carbon-free electricity by 2030, and to reach a goal of 100% by 2050.
Two days after Northam announced the goals, Dominion went public with its plans to build the nation’s largest offshore wind farm. Located 27 miles from the shoreline of Virginia Beach, the 220-turbine project would produce enough electricity to power 650,000 homes at peak wind.
In Botetourt County, a wind farm called Rocky Forge is expected to produce enough electricity to power about 20,000 homes at its peak capacity — while also generating up to $25 million in tax revenue for the state and county and producing up to 250 jobs during construction.
About seven permanent jobs will go toward running the wind farm.
“We are happy to have the project moving forward as approved by the board of supervisors in 2016,” said Billy Martin, chairman of the Botetourt County board.
While there was some pubic opposition to the project, mostly from residents in nearby Rockbridge County, it did not draw the kind of outcry caused by wind farms proposed — and later dropped — elsewhere in Southwest Virginia by other developers.
The secluded site in Botetourt might have kept more people from complaining about the turbines’ appearance and noise, and the shadow flicker created by their large spinning blades.
“Rocky Forge will bring substantial local economic benefits and is well-sited,” said Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt. “It is the perfect choice for Virginia’s first wind farm.”
Apex plans to build the wind farm on part of a 7,000-acre tract of leased private land about five miles north of Eagle Rock. Computer simulations have shown the turbines, about the height of the Washington Monument, would not be a prominent part of the skyline in many parts of Botetourt County.
Although current approvals from the county and state are for up to 25 turbines no taller than 550 feet, it’s possible that changes in technology since the permits were issued could lead to taller proposed turbines, but fewer of them. Any such changes would have to be approved through a process to amend the permits.
The first phase of construction will be tree-cutting around a dirt road that leads to the mountain top.
The road will have to be widened to accommodate tractor-trailers, which will haul the turbines in pieces to be assembled in a Y-shaped formation that will follow two ridgelines for about 3.5 miles. Apex officials said a firm date for the start of work has not been set.
Apex also has plans for a second wind farm in Pulaski County, although that development is still in the preliminary stages.
In 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration approved four test towers to measure the wind’s strength on land south of Claytor Lake, on the 17,000-acre Blue Ridge Scout Reservation.
Virginia is one of only nine states in the country with no utility-scale wind installments since the movement started more than 30 years ago in the West.
The states without commercial turbines are in the Southeast, where the wind does not blow as strongly and steadily as in other regions. But advances in technology have fueled wind energy, which now generates nearly 7% of the electricity in the United States, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“Apex Clean Energy’s strong commitment to environmental stewardship and concern for the local community has earned our respect and support as the project enters the next phase of development,” said Dan Crawford of the Sierra Club’s Roanoke chapter.
In recent years, improvements in solar technology have decreased its cost and made it a competitor of sorts with wind energy, said Jonathan Miles, director of the Center for the Advancement of Sustainable Energy at James Madison University.
But plans like Virginia’s can take advantage of solar’s strength in the summer months, while drawing on winds that blow stronger in the winter.
“One is always going to be more expensive than the other, but the combined generation of solar and wind presents many advantages from an electricity management standard,” Miles said.
The solar farms included in the package announced Friday will be located in Chesapeake and the counties of Louisa and King and Queen, and at a fourth site yet to be identified. They are expected to go online in stages over the next three years. Apex is not involved with those projects.
“We are pleased to help the Commonwealth — home to our headquarters — achieve its momentous goals, to further establish Virginia as a clean energy leader, and to provide a meaningful economic development opportunity for Botetourt County,” Mark Goodwin, president and CEO of the company, said.