The massive blades of wind turbines will not spin during the times they are most likely to kill flying bats, an energy developer says in seeking state permission to build its wind farm atop a Botetourt County mountain.
Apex Clean Energy will turn the turbines off from dusk to dawn every year between May 15 and Nov. 15, when bats are foraging for food. But they could remain on when the wind is blowing faster that 15 mph or when the temperature dips below 38 degrees, conditions that keep the bats grounded.
Those are some of the steps offered to lessen the wind farm’s potential harm to natural resources, which are detailed in a permit application that Apex filed last week with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
The application, which fills a binder four inches thick, contains the most detailed analysis to date of the environmental impact of putting 25 turbines — each one nearly as tall as the Washington Monument — on top of North Mountain to convert wind to electricity.
What is likely to be Virginia’s first commercial wind farm is causing some conflict, even among environmentalists.
Supporters, including the Sierra Club’s Roanoke chapter, see renewable energy as one way to save an earth being polluted and warmed by coal-burning power plants. Opponents, including the Rockbridge Area Conservation Council, see the giant turbines as threats to wildlife and its habitat on a pristine mountain ridge.
Apex officials say they are confident they can extract green energy from nature without harm.
“There are proven steps we can take to build and operate projects in an environmentally responsible manner,” company spokesman Kevin Chandler wrote in an email.
“By emitting no pollution and creating no hazardous waste that can pollute rivers and streams, and through managing our impact on wildlife, wind energy is ultimately one of the cleanest, safest, most environmentally responsible forms of electricity generation.”
A monthlong public comment period on Apex’s application began Thursday. After that, DEQ will have 90 days to decide whether to grant Apex the permit it needs to have the turbines at Rocky Forge Wind spinning by late next year.
The Charlottesville-based company already has obtained local approval from the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors in what was essentially a land zoning process.
Few people live near the 7,000-acre parcel of private land that Apex is leasing for the project. That may explain why opposition was not nearly as strong in Botetourt as it has been in other localities, where nearby residents have complained that proposed wind farms would be a noisy eyesore, cast flickering shadows and devalue their property.
The supervisors granted Apex a special exception permit following a January public hearing in which wind energy supporters outnumbered opponents by about 3 to 1.
Turbine blades and birds
Now, the debate shifts to the nonhuman residents of North Mountain.
“The proposed project will result in the deaths of migratory songbirds, bats and perhaps golden eagles with consequent effects on the ecosystem,” the Rockbridge Area Conservation Council maintains in a position paper. From its planned spot about five miles northeast of Eagle Rock, the wind farm would be just a few miles from the Rockbridge County line.
A second Rockbridge County organization, Virginians for Responsible Energy, has joined with the American Bird Conservancy in expressing similar concerns. A wind farm “has the potential to be catastrophic” for eastern golden eagles known to populate North Mountain, the two organizations wrote in a recent letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Apex takes a less dire view, based on data gathered for more than two years by private firms it retained for a detailed environmental analysis.
Professional birdwatchers have logged the number of warblers, sandpipers, owls and other threatened or endangered species. Biologists have peered from helicopters that hovered over the tree line, looking for eagle nests. Bats have been snared in nets for counting and recorded by devices that monitor the ultrasonic calls they make to navigate the sky.
The surveys, which were done in consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, are included in Apex’s application.
Observations of most North American birds, made during the June breeding season when activity is the highest, indicate that they would not be impacted by the wind farm, the application states. Raptors, or birds of prey that include eagles, hawks and falcons, were not seen in large enough numbers to raise concerns.
“There is low eagle use of the area compared to other Appalachian ridgelines and the project poses a low risk of impact,” the application stated.
According to the bird conservancy, about 600,000 birds were killed in 2012 after being struck by turbine blades in the United States. With the number of turbines now at 48,000 and expected to increase rapidly, the conservancy projects deaths to approach 2 million by 2030.
The American Wind Energy Association, an industry trade group, counters that the number of birds killed by wind turbines is minuscule when compared to fatalities caused by other man-made objects. About 550 million birds died after flying into glass windows or buildings, the association says, and another 80 million were struck and killed by cars and trucks.
Bats more at risk
Less than four miles from the turbine site, in Peary Salt Peter Cave, surveyors found a bat hibernaculum.
Studies have documented that when bats emerge from hibernation, roosting in trees during the summer, they are vulnerable to being struck by wind turbine blades as they swoop through the sky to feed on bugs and mosquitoes.
“That’s what the science says; there are additional mortalities that probably would not otherwise occur,” said Mark Ford a professor at Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment who leads the Virginia Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.
Four endangered or threatened species — the northern long-eared bat, the Indiana bat, the tricolored bat and the little brown bat — were spotted on North Mountain during the surveys.
Other bats that migrate south for the winter could also be at risk of colliding with the turbines during their spring and fall flights, the surveyors determined after consulting with state and federal wildlife agencies.
As many as 1.3 million bats may have been killed by wind turbines nationally in 2011, according to Bat Conservation International.
In its application to DEQ, Apex proposes a number of steps to minimize the threats. The company will put the brakes on its turbines from sunset to sunrise each year, from mid-May to mid-November, except when the wind is blowing faster than 15 mph or it is 38 degrees or colder on the mountain ridge.
Bats generally do not venture out in cold or windy weather.
“These are little guys,” Ford said. “They’re kind of like Piper Cubs or Cessnas, so if the wind is too high they’re not aeronautically capable of handling that.”
In what it calls its mitigation plan, Apex says it will also avoid cutting trees within five miles of the bats’ cave and within 150 feet of summer roosting trees for northern long-eared bats from early spring to fall.
And when it builds a road needed to transport the turbines to the mountain top, Apex will conduct blasting before May 1 to allow bats to find roosting sites out of harm’s way.
Other steps to lighten the wind farm’s environmental footprint have already been taken, Apex says, with the selection of a site that has existing roads, clearings and a power line that will be used to transfer electricity from the turbines to the power grid.
The mitigation plan also requires Apex staff to regularly monitor the ground around each turbine to check for dead birds and bats, and to record each kill. To test the efficiency of the searches, company officials will secretly place carcasses of birds and bats not killed by turbines in the area to see if they are spotted.
With no other wind farms operating in Virginia, the data will be watched closely by regulators.
Streamlined approval process
The last time a wind farm was approved by the state of Virginia, it was for a 19-turbine project in Highland County that never got built.
Despite strong opposition from local residents, the county board of supervisors granted a conditional use permit for the wind farm in 2005. But the process bogged down when it went to the State Corporation Commission, which at the time was the Virginia agency in charge of regulating wind farms.
After five years of quasi-judicial proceedings — in which lawyers made arguments, witnesses were cross-examined and documents were entered into the record — the SCC eventually approved the project, which by then was struggling financially.
That kind of drawn-out proceeding is unlikely to happen with the Botetourt County wind farm.
In 2010, a change in state law put the Department of Environmental Quality in charge of approving wind farms and solar energy projects. Under a streamlined process called permit-by-rule, DEQ has 90 days to rule on an application from a developer.
Gone is the uncertainty that developers faced with the SCC. In its place is a streamlined administrative process that requires approval once the DEQ determines that applicants have met 14 standard requirements. Some of the prerequisites, such as approval by the local governing body and connection agreements with the power grid, are achieved long before an application is filed.
Critics say the 90-day window does not provide enough time for a detailed environmental analysis, especially considering that the studies submitted to DEQ are paid for by the applicants.
“There must be time to properly evaluate the impacts on wildlife and habitats before going ahead with these projects,” said Michael Hutchins, director of the American Bird Conservancy’s Bird-Smart Wind Energy Campaign.
DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden said that if the agency is not satisfied with Apex’s mitigation offers, it can withhold approval of the permit until a suitable plan is submitted.
“We have a strong proposed management plan for Rocky Forge,” Chandler said, “and we are confident this project can safely and responsibly generate renewable energy in the Commonwealth for decades to come.”
Comments about a proposed wind farm in Botetourt County can be submitted by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Apex Clean Energy, 310 4th Street NE, Suite 200, Charlottesville, VA, 22902. There will also be a public meeting to take comments from 5 to 7 p.m. May 25 at the Eagle Rock Library.