by James A. Bacon
Investors have been trying without success for nearly a decade to build wind turbines along the ridge lines of Virginia’s mountains. Projects have bogged down amid concerns about noise generated by thrumming blades, the slaughter of birds and bats, and the imposition of 500-foot-high machines upon neighbors’ pristine views. While wind turbines have sprouted around the country — generating 25% of the electric supply of Kansas, Iowa and South Dakota — not one wind farm has been built in Virginia.
Charlottesville-based Apex Clean Energy is optimistic that it can break the jinx, predicting that its Botetourt County wind farm, Rocky Forge, will plug into Virginia’s electric grid by late 2017, and that a Pulaski County project, Pinewood, will be up and running by 2018.
I sat down yesterday with Tyson Utt, Apex director of development for the Mid-Atlantic, to discuss land-based wind power in Virginia. When I asked him why there is none, he didn’t want to talk about what others might have done wrong. Apex’s focus, he said, is on getting it right. The special attention Apex pays to site selection and community relations, he says, minimizes local opposition by framing wind power as an asset, not a liability, to the community.
If anyone is positioned to pull off the feat of generating land-based wind power in Virginia, it’s Apex. Senior management has years of experience in wind, selling a portfolio of projects to BP in 2009 and then launching Apex to acquire stranded wind projects around the country and add to them with internally developed projects. The team includes more than 150 employees steeped in all aspects of siting, constructing and operating windmills. Pocketing $30 million in second-round financing in August to finance its growth, Apex has 53 wind projects in 25 states completed or under development.
The economics of wind power are improving as the turbines that convert wind to energy continuously improve in efficiency, says Utt. Meanwhile, there is growing demand for green energy as states adopt Renewable Portfolio Standards (mandatory targets for renewable energy as a percentage of total electricity production) and as corporations seek to establish their green bona fides by purchasing green power. While concerns persist about the intermittent nature of wind, the experience of other states and some European countries, he says, has demonstrated that wind can account for a significant percentage of total electric power without compromising the reliability of the electric grid.
Apex’s value proposition, says Utt, is the close attention it pays to site selection. The development team does due diligence on potential locations, focusing not only on technical factors such as wind speeds and variability, and economic factors such as proximity to transmission lines, but to intangibles like wildlife habitat and impact on view sheds. “We factor in community acceptance when we site a project,” he says.
High on the list is aligning the interests of the landowner with the company, says Utt. Typically, that means paying the landowner a royalty as a percentage of revenues generated, and it means configuring the project so that the landowner can continue using the land — for farming, forestry, whatever — that he or she had been using it for previously. In the case of the Rocky Forge project, which will have up to 25 windmills, a provision is written into the lease that allows hunters to continue using the land, a measure that has helped win over local hunting clubs. Also critical to building public support is creating an open line of communication with county residents to allay the inevitable fears.
An advantage of the Rocky Forge project is that the wind turbines will be located on isolated mountain ridges that will be seen by relatively few people, says Utt. For the most part the mountain ridges will be screened by other ridges and forested land. Botetourt County has enacted an ordinance laying out guidelines for development of wind projects, including a restriction that limits turbines and their blades to a maximum height of 550 feet.
However, Apex hasn’t won over everybody. In July, eight Botetourt residents filed a lawsuit in circuit court claiming that the ordinance failed to protect them from dangers posed by the giant windmills. “Industrial wind turbines are known to catch fire, to collapse, emit audible and low frequency noise, cause shadow flicker and to throw ice from spinning blades in the wintertime,” the lawsuit states. And that’s just the impact on people. The giant blades also kill birds and bats.
The county isn’t backing down, and Apex is proceeding with development. In July the company applied for a permit to build three temporary meteorological towers, no higher than 199 feet, to collect data on wind speeds and variability. Eight days ago, the company asked the Federal Aviation Administration to issue a determination that the towers would not interfere with passing airplanes.
Important aspects of the Rocky Forge project have yet to be determined, like who will buy the electricity. Apex might sell it to a power company — the site is located next to a Dominion Virginia Power transmission line — or to a large commercial customer, or even to the wholesale market. If the price was right, it could sell the project to another owner, although Apex’s business model calls for operating and maintaining the wind farms itself. The company monitors and controls facilities around the country from a central facility in Charlottesville 24 hours per day.
When asked what the General Assembly, Governor’s Office or the State Corporation Commission can do to make Virginia more hospitable to on-shore wind power, Utt doesn’t have any suggestions. He just emphasizes the opportunity created by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which compels Virginia to reduce CO2 emissions over the next several years, to grow a new industry.
Fostering the growth of Virginia-based wind farms keeps economic activity in the state, Utt observes. Virginia is one of the largest importers of electric power of any state in the country. Why not create a revenue stream for Virginia landowners and a Virginia company instead of importing green power from outside the state?
Thanks to improving technology, the cost of wind has come down 58% over the past five years, says Utt. Between the growing demand for green energy and the declining cost, growth of the wind industry is “inevitable.” Virginia might as well take part.