Wind Power in Virginia… 2017 or Bust

wind_turbinesby 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.

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11 responses to “Wind Power in Virginia… 2017 or Bust”

  1. If the gas line people gave a royalty as is done elsewhere they might get a positive response.

    1. I agree.
      On the topic of human perception of risk, and risk communication: People will tend to be outraged about a project unless they feel that they are benefiting from the project. The best way to get support is money unfortunately, either thru local tax reduction via host community benefits, or direct land owner payments in the case of wind. So basically, outrage over zero risk if there is no money, and on the other hand, willingness to accept huge risks if monetary payout is perceived.

  2. I would be happy to see Apex and others find successful opportunities for on-shore wind energy in Virginia. However, it seems to me, if we really want to add a lot of wind power, we may need to go out-of-state to the wind corridors in WV, PA, and MD. Unfortunately that big mountain wind corridor is slightly west of our state boundary lines. I am confused if the Clean Power Plan allows VA to build out-of-state wind and take the CO2 reduction credits (defined on a state boundary line basis).

    Also recently reading the retired Exelon CEO comments, he mentions how much the (nuclear-based) utilities dislike wind (vs. solar) because wind provides power at night which wreaks havoc with the nuclear power economics. Since Virginia is basically also a nuclear-based electric economy, his comments may apply to us to some extent. I presume this might explain why Dominion is supporting more solar over wind.

  3. 25?????

    Try hundreds!

    Drove thru this area and for miles you see hundreds of turbines as far as the eye can see. Looking thru those lenses, it is beautiful

    1. I don’t really understand the aesthetic objections to wind either. I remember the first wind turbines I saw in real life — on the island of Kuaui. They struck me as majestic, almost beautiful.

      1. Have you ever wondered if the Dutch of years gone by complained about the construction of the iconic windmills which dot the landscape of the Netherlands and have become a de facto national emblem?

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    I like them also – and if folks worry about bird kills – they might consider how many are killed by cars and by cats and windows.

    I’ll bet most of us have killed a few birds with our cars and had them fly into our windows, right?

    the other thing – don’t confuse NIMBY’s with “greenies”. they’re different critters and NOT … “birds of a feather”. pun intended.

    We have people up our way that act like a 200 foot cell tower is the end of the world for their little piece of paradise.. they say they “like” the woods they live in and don’t want it “spoiled”.. never mind it was REALLY unspoiled before they came, knocked down the trees and built their “affordable” housing…


  5. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Not all forms of energy work in all locations and Virginia isn’t blessed with great choices for on shore wind. But it should work up on some of those ridgelines and I hope they can overcome the NIMBY’s and get it built. It’s a shame GAMESA gave up its plans to build a test tower on the Eastern Shore, because that would have introduced a lot of Virginians to the sight of a turbine and people would have started to get used to it.

    I don’t know why a nuclear operator would be worried about wind more than solar, given that both have pretty low capacity factors compared to a nuclear plant. The key to all this is going to be solving the challenge of storage and there will always need to be base load generation in the mix. The true believers don’t want to hear it but wind and solar can’t do it by themselves.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    Well this is interesting: ” Va. attorney general’s office says Dominion should abandon third North Anna reactor”

    “… [and could]… increase customers’ bills by 25 percent, an expert witness for the Attorney General Office’s Division of Consumer Counsel testified before the SCC.”

    ” Dominion’s own 15-year outlook — the subject of SCC hearings this week — shows that the nuclear option is more expensive than building natural gas plants or relying on such renewable resources as solar power as it works to comply with new federal carbon dioxide emissions restrictions.”

    so we’ve had informative dialogue here in BR about PJM and 3rd party generators of electricity and how building wind and solar and feeding it into the PJM grid is a different proposition than trying to go about it via Dominion’s part of the grid.

    Jim B and others seem to be still fixating on the “variability” issue but apparently PJM is not so concerned and/or thinks appropriate interconnection points located geographically on the grid can smooth things out. Apparently PJM feels the grid is already able to balance varying loads and don’t see it as the problem that others perceive.

    Back to Nuclear – Dominion does have a rationale:

    ” “The option value that the (federal license) provides for customers is almost immeasurable,” said Thomas P. Wohlfarth, Dominion’s senior vice president of regulatory affairs. “Right now, North Anna 3 is the third most expensive option for complying with the Clean Power Plan. But all it takes is some variation on how the state decides to implement the plan, or decisions by other states, or change in gas prices. You could very easily see a flip in the value where North Anna ends up being the lowest cost. … You can’t go all in on one fuel source.”

    I can buy that – to a point – if Dominion and other players weren’t also vying to build pipelines to move natural gas across the State to possibly export it. Would like to hear Dominion definitively rule that out. .. would not like to see gas skyrocket in cost and the “solution” is even more expensive nuclear.

    And yes, if Nuclear technology achieves a safer plant not so vulnerable to earthquake faults and meltdowns – who knows… but 2 billion worth of ratepayers money to preserve this option – at the same time they are arguing that investing in renewables like wind and solar are “too expensive” seems a bit contradictory.

    It looks to me that Dominion’s leadership is wedded to nukes – perhaps too wedded.

    Finally – why is the AG office doing this due diligence instead of the SCC?

    Normally, the AG does not intervene unless if feels that Va Consumers are facing a fiscal threat.. and to have the AG intervening – instead of the SCC .. makes one wonder if the AG thinks the SCC is not doing enough or if there is some politics involved or what. (or maybe I’m just ignorant of the dynamic and relationship).

    One thing seems clear – Dominion’s reliance on Nuclear to the point of still advocating a new plant over an active fault zone – at the same time it seems to be dragging it’s heels on renewables AND discouraging both 3rd party providers as well as homeowners .. seems at odds with other utilities in other states and PJM behaviors.

    I cannot blame Dominion for maximizing the value proposition to it’s investors – I would not expect any different but at the same time – where Dominion seems to be headed to the future – is more problematical given the way that other utilities and PJM are proceeding. Does Dominion know something the others don’t?

    to put this another way – is Dominion headed in the same direction that PJM and other utilities are – and if they are not – has Dominion sufficiently justified the rationale to ratepayers and the Va AG?

    1. Rowinguy Avatar

      Larry, the AP story that you reference is not accurate as to the OAG’s position regarding North Anna 3. The OAG did NOT recommend that DVP abandon the plant. What it did, both in the IRP case that this story covers, and in the DVP biennial review in which briefs were filed yesterday, is recommend that the SCC convene a review of the prudence of DVP continuing these development efforts.

      There is an old, pre-deregulation, reregulation statute on the books that says that a utility that “intends to construct” a generating unit capable of producing 100 MW of power or more must file financing plans for such facility with the SCC for its approval. Va. Code Section 56-234.3

      This is why DVP is maintaining the legal fig leaf that is “hasn’t committed” to construct NA3. The quote from Ass’t AG William Reisinger in the 5th graf of the article you link (notice its the first quote the AP writer uses) makes sense in the context of this statute and Dominion’s dancing all around whether it’s committed to build the plant. Reisinger is quoted as saying “How many hundreds of millions or billions of dollars does a company need to spend on a generation project before it can say we are planning to build this generation project?”

      Once the company definitely says its going to build then the SCC can make it come in to justify the spending.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    there’s a big misunderstanding about bird kills and the environment.

    most birds (and other critter) produce far more offspring than can survive for the habitat they have available.

    Many die – because there are more of them than habitat – and that’s the way that nature works by default.

    When your cat kills a bird or your car kills a bird – you’re not reducing the number of birds that will inhabit that habitat. Another bird in the next nesting season will fill in wherever there is space – and many more will die from being the losers in the competition for the habitat.

    We don’t not build roads, bridges, buildings with windows, powerlines, etc because they things cause birds to go extinct.

    Putting that restriction on wind turbines is – ignorant. I’m not using a pejorative here.. I’m using the right word – people do not understand how the environment actually works.

    Where the rub DOES happen is if the bird is endangered because their habitat is limited and is being destroyed.

    that does change the dynamics.

    Jim has talked about re-creating habitat… for endangered species… but the reality is – we pretty much suck at that because we are largely ignorant of the things that are required. If we were good at that – we’d have a solution for every endangered species… but so far we end up with – only being able to identify where they currently habitat.

    Not to mention – who actually ends up paying the bill for these studies and “created” habitats.

    so the question with wind turbines is – do they adversely impact habitat for endangered species – which would be – to be fair – no different question than the proposition for a pipeline, road, or powerline.

    To me – if we were really serious – we’d be able to inventory – the amount of habitat as well as the number of critters living in those habitats – and then for a given proposal – show how much habitat will be lost and how many critters will be lost – relative to total numbers.

    That’s really what NEPA and EAs and EIS should be doing for endangered species in my view.

    Instead we do less than informative analyses that in turn foster ignorance and empower NIMBYs and ultimately a disservice to the fundamental intent of preserving species while improving human habitat.

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