Slowed for nearly seven years by lawsuits, design changes, the pandemic and a lengthy search for a buyer of the renewable energy it will produce, a mountaintop wind farm in Botetourt County continues to inch forward.
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality recently reaffirmed its approval for the Rocky Forge Wind project, which will entail building 13 turbines, each one 634 feet tall, along a ridgeline of North Mountain.
Apex Clean Energy, a Charlottesville-based company that first proposed the wind farm in 2015, says it intends to start construction once a final site plan and other permits are approved by the county.
Although other ridgeline wind farms have been proposed in Virginia, the plans fell through for a variety of reasons. If Rocky Forge is completed, it would be the state’s first on-shore wind farm.
To date, Apex has not found a buyer for the 75 megawatts of electricity the turbines will produce at peak capacity.
But unlike in 2017 — when the wind farm had all of its required permits but delayed construction for two years while it searched for a utility or other entity to purchase its power — the company is planning to move ahead this time without a signed contract.
“Apex is in active discussions with potential commercial partners,” company spokesman Patrick Chilton said Friday. “We feel very strongly in the market for this project and know that the more ‘real’ Rocky Forge becomes, those conversations will pick up significantly.”
In October 2019, then-Gov. Ralph Northam announced that Dominion Energy would acquire the electricity from Rocky Forge and then sell it to Virginia as part of a deal that would help the state meet its renewable energy goals.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and supply chain issues slowed progress to a crawl. When the power purchase agreement expired Dec. 31, 2021, Dominion and Apex chose not to renew the contract in what was described as a mutual agreement.
As Apex searched for a new buyer, it also faced legal challenges from opponents.
A group of landowners in northern Botetourt County and neighboring Rockbridge County have said their property will be devalued by turbines that will mar the scenic landscape, kill birds and bats that fly into their spinning blades, cause other environmental damage and produce low-frequency noise and shadow flicker.
In a lawsuit, about a dozen opponents accused DEQ of downplaying or ignoring problems posed by giant windmills that would be nearly twice as tall as the Wells Fargo tower in downtown Roanoke.
Botetourt Circuit Judge Joel Branscom turned down some aspects of the lawsuit, but ruled in March that DEQ made procedural errors in approving the project for a second time.
The first state approval came in 2017, when Apex planned to build up to 25 turbines as tall as 550 feet. But by the time it struck a deal with Dominion and Virginia two years later, Apex said advances in technology had allowed it to build fewer turbines, but at a greater height.
Apex applied for an amended permit, which allowed the turbines to be built up to 680 feet tall. That was approved in 2020, and Apex later came up with its current configuration of 13 turbines at 643 feet.
But Branscom later ruled that, in holding a public comment period for the amended permit, DEQ failed to make available for a second time all of the documents and studies required to satisfy more than a dozen state requirements for wind farms.
The judge ordered a second public comment period. The application was then resubmitted to DEQ, which informed Apex in a brief letter dated Sept. 23 that it had reaffirmed the amended permit.
With state authorization now back in hand, Apex still needs to obtain approval from Botetourt County of a final site plan and other permits, including one for erosion and sediment control measures.
County planning officials plan to meet with Apex next week to discuss the next step in the resubmittal of a site plan, spokeswoman Tiffany Bradbury said.
It was not clear how long that process will take. As a result, a firm construction schedule has yet to be set for Rocky Forge.
“There’s an ideal time of year for construction, or a construction season, where environmental and weather conditions are more favorable,” Chilton wrote in an email.
Work on the project will likely proceed in two phases, he said. Preliminary work would be done in the first season, followed by a winter break. The second stage of work, which would involve the installation of the turbines, would then be done the next spring or summer.
Over the past seven years, the wind farm has undergone lengthy review at the local, state and federal level.
Early on, concerns that bats might fly into the spinning blades — each one nearly the length of a football field — led DEQ to set conditions on the operation of Rocky Forge.
Apex agreed to turn the turbines off at dusk and restart them at dawn in the warmer months, when bats are most active.
More recently, opponents have said the wind farm could also threaten golden eagles. A firm hired by Apex did a survey that found only three bald and eight golden eagles in the area of the wind farm over a one-year period that ended in 2015. Based on the low numbers and other factors, Apex determined that the project posed little risk to eagles.
But opponents, joined by the American Bird Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, argued that the study was outdated, and urged DEA to require additional research.
“Our longstanding concerns about this project remain unaddressed by Apex,” Lewis Grove, director of wind and energy for the conservancy, wrote in an email Friday.
“Good faith engagement with the public regarding planned industrial development is a cornerstone of environmental protection. By declining to fully engage in that process, Apex has failed to address substantial concerns about the impacts of this project upon the already-small population of eastern Golden Eagles.”
However, DEQ had no authority to force Apex to restudy the risk to eagles under the narrow confines of the amended-permit process, a spokesperson for the agency said.
Branscom’s order required only that DEQ consider whether Apex had made the materials from the initial approval in 2017 available for public comment in the latest application process before determining whether its authorization remained valid, spokeswoman Irina Calos said.
In its Sept. 23 letter to Apex, DEQ wrote that it had reviewed the public comments and, after consulting with the state Department of Wildlife Resources, decided to reaffirm its approval.