ROANOKE — State environmental regulators have approved a commercial wind farm in Botetourt County, clearing the way for up to 25 giant turbines to be built atop a remote ridgeline.
In a decision Thursday, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality ruled that putting the 550-foot tall turbines on top of North Mountain would not pose an undue risk to wildlife and its surrounding habitat – with one exception.
Acknowledging that the spinning blades could strike flying bats, DEQ accepted a plan by developer Apex Clean Energy to turn the turbines off at night during the warmer parts of the year, when bats are most active.
The Charlottesville-based Apex is now in line to build the first commercial wind farm in Virginia.
“Wind energy will help drive the Virginia economy forward, especially in terms of creating great jobs,” Mark Goodwin, president and CEO of Apex, said in a statement Thursday.
With the Rocky Forge project expected to go online next year in Botetourt, Virginia would become the 41st state to include wind in a national movement toward using more renewable and non-polluting energy sources, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
“Linked with competitive pricing and clear evidence that new clean energy generation attracts major corporate investment, Rocky Forge Wind is set to begin a new chapter in Virginia’s energy future,” Goodwin said.
As part of its review, DEQ invited written comments from the public. Of 133 letters and emails received, support for the wind farm outnumbered opposition 43-36. The rest of the comments were submitted in the form of questions or did not take a pro or con position.
DEQ’s ruling is the last in a series of governmental approvals – at the national, state and local level – needed by Apex before the Charlottesville-based company can begin construction.
The Botetourt County Board of Supervisors granted zoning approval for Apex in January 2016, and the Federal Aviation Administration determined in October that the turbines would not interfere with the navigation of passing aircraft.
To evaluate the wind farm’s impact on the environment, DEQ relied in large part on studies conducted for Apex by private firms, in consultation with state and federal agencies.
The data showed minimal harm to birds, noting that eagles and other types of birds most threatened by turbines were not seen in large numbers at the proposed wind farm site, a 7,000-acre parcel of unpopulated woodland on North Mountain that sits about five miles northeast of Eagle Rock.
As for bats, four endangered or threatened species – the northern long-eared bat, the Indiana bat, the tricolored bat and the little brown bat – were either spotted on the mountain during surveys or are believed to be present.
Other bats with no state or federal listing also were documented.
In an application submitted to DEQ in May, Apex proposed a number of steps to protect bats, which are prone to flying into the spinning blades of turbines while feeding on mosquitoes and other airborne insects.
The company will stop its turbines from sunset to sunrise from mid-May to mid-November every year, 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.
In what is called a mitigation plan – which DEQ accepted in approving the application – Apex says it also will avoid cutting trees within five miles of the bats’ caves and within 150 feet of summer roosting trees for northern long-eared bats from early spring to fall.
Opponents of the wind farm continue to question assessments that it will not harm birds and bats, pointing out that the supporting research was done by expert firms hired by Apex.
“Not once have we seen such studies recommend moving a project based on threats to wildlife,” Michael Hutchins of the American Bird Conservancy wrote in a letter to DEQ.
“That’s to be expected: consultants would not stay in business very long if they did not produce positive results for the contractor.”
Critics also say that DEQ’s approval process, dictated by a state law passed in 2010, is too friendly to industry.
The streamlined administrative process, called permit-by-rule, requires approval once that 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 well before an application is filed.
Although the Botetourt proposal did not draw strong community opposition, there were some complaints about turbines that will stand nearly as tall as the Washington Monument. But concerns about the turbine’s appearance and the noise they make did not fall under the DEQ approval process, which focused on environmental issues.
Work on the project is expected to begin as soon as the end of the year. Apex has said earlier that it expects to have the turbines spinning by some time in 2018, producing enough electricity to power 20,000 homes.
Although the company has cleared all of the major regulatory hurdles, it still must find a utility to purchase its electricity, which will be transferred to the power grid from an existing power line that crosses the property.
During construction, the wind farm is expected to produce about 150 jobs. Once the project is operational, it will be run by about a half-dozen employees on site.
Apex officials have said earlier that the facility could pump as much as $4.5 million a year into the local economy, adding to the tax base and contributing to local sales and tourism spending.
“Rocky Forge will be a large contributor to Botetourt County’s tax base, while having a minimal effect on existing land use of the thousands of acres of rural land in the project area,” board of supervisors Chairman Jack Leffel said in a written statement.
“This seems like a win-win to me.”