If today is like most other days, the wind will blow at a leisurely pace over North Mountain in Botetourt County, although perhaps not as leisurely as down in the valley. Things are always a bit brisker up on the mountain. Economically speaking, these winds are of no consequence. They are, as Shakespeare wrote, “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” That may be about to change.
On Friday, Gov. Ralph Northam went to George Mason University to make an announcement that the state will be buying 420 megawatts of renewable energy to power some of its buildings —– about 30% of the state’s annual energy usage. It’s the largest state contract for renewable energy in the nation. If you’re concerned about the rising amount of carbon in the atmosphere — higher than at any time in human history, a rise that coincidentally began about the time of the industrial revolution — then probably just about any announcement about renewable energy is a good one. This one, though, has a particular local impact: Some of that energy will be coming from Virginia’s first commercial wind farm, and that wind farm will be in Botetourt County.
That means those winds blowing over North Mountain will now be put to use generating electricity — and tax revenue for Botetourt County.
The fact that this would be the first commercial wind farm in Virginia says a lot about geography — and politics. The former certainly influences the deployment of wind energy, but so does the latter. Some context is in order:
Wind power may seem exotic to us here in Virginia — or, indeed, the whole South — but that’s only because we’ve lagged behind the rest of the world in developing renewable energy of all sorts. When we in Virginia do see renewable energy, it tends to be solar. We now have solar farms in Bedford County, rooftop solar programs in Roanoke and Montgomery County and elsewhere, and even a conservative state senator, Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, who has championed legislation to enable solar-powered schools. Wind power is basically non-existent, except for anyone who has a private turbine. Overall though — both in the world and the nation — wind power is far more prevalent than solar power.
In terms of percentages, Scotland relies on wind energy more than anyplace else on the planet. On some days over the past few years, it’s generated 100% of its energy from wind. You may recall that Donald’s Trump golf course in Scotland went to court to try to block the installation of 11 wind turbines off the coast but within sight of the putting greens. Trump lost, perhaps one of many reasons why the president isn’t keen on wind energy. He’s right; the wind doesn’t blow all the time, which is why nobody relies on a single source of energy. Still, it’s clear that renewables are on the rise and fossil fuels are on the wane. Scotland last year generated 75% of its energy from renewables, principally but not exclusively wind. Scotland, of course, isn’t a country; it’s part of the United Kingdom, the Scottish nationalist movement notwithstanding, but it’s still a useful guide.
In terms of actual nation-states, Denmark now generates 41% of its power from wind — and even exports some of that energy to neighboring countries in Europe. Denmark may seem small, but Germany is an industrial powerhouse, and it now generates 21% of its energy from wind. Throughout the European Union, about 14% of the continent’s energy comes from wind. The wind is always blowing somewhere.
The biggest wind producer in the world is China, although wind is still a small percentage of that country’s overall energy production —– about 5%. (Solar there is about 2.5%). That’s also true for the United States. We’re the world’s second-biggest producer of wind energy, although wind accounts for just 6.6% of our energy production last year (solar is at 1.6%). One difference between the two countries: China has set ambitious targets to quintuple its reliance on renewable energy to 35% by 2030, and we have not.
Nonetheless, some parts of the U.S. have gone in heavy for wind, principally in the Midwest. In Kansas, 36% of the energy comes from wind power. In Iowa, the figure is 34%. In Oklahoma, it’s 32%. The interesting thing there politically is that these are all strongly Republican states — but lots of Republican-voting farmers have found that leasing their land for wind turbines is a good money-maker. Green energy is no longer exclusively a liberal conceit, although some old-school conservatives still act like it is. (The new school ones belong to groups such as Conservatives for Clean Energy Virginia, because they understand renewables are both cleaner and often cheaper.) As for reliability: The lights don’t seem to flicker off in Kansas City.
Obviously some parts of the country have more wind than others but, politically, the most wind-resistant part of the country has been the South. Does the wind not blow there? It does, but for lots of reasons, utilities there haven’t developed it. Virginia’s record on wind hasn’t been a good one. Dominion Energy proposed what would have been the state’s first wind farm a few years ago — in Tazewell County. People in Tazewell strongly opposed it — partly for scenic reasons, but also partly because it wasn’t coal. Other proposals to build wind farms in Floyd, Highland, Pulaski and Roanoke counties have also failed, usually because of local opposition. People apparently don’t like seeing wind turbines. At some point, though, people have to decide where they do want their energy coming from. If we don’t want it from coal or natural gas, that doesn’t leave too many choices.
The site near Eagle Rock seems an unusual one, in a good way. It’s so far out of the way that there are few neighbors to complain. At the first public hearing four years ago, supporters outnumbered opponents 2-1. Meanwhile, a decidedly conservative board of supervisors saw the potential for $1 million or so in tax revenue — a windfall in a growing rural county that faces pressure for new services. Presumably, the dynamics haven’t changed, except perhaps to clarify the options.
Here’s something else Friday’s announcement highlights: The power of the free market. Yes, this is the state doing the buying, but the state is as much a consumer in the free market as anyone else. Increasingly, we’re seeing big companies — from Amazon to Walmart —– insist on buying renewable energy. The state here is simply exercising its power in the marketplace, as well. Ideally, the procedural steps coming next will be the same thing happening on top the mountain — a breeze.