It had begun to look like no one would ever build a wind farm on land in Virginia. Appalachian Power Company (APCo) hasn’t shown interest since the State Corporation Commission bounced its proposal for West Virginia wind farms several years ago. Just this past November, Dominion Resources let it be known the company saw no future in land-based wind. One after the other, wind development companies put their Virginia plans on hold, citing permitting issues, anti-wind local ordinances, and—especially—a challenging policy environment.
But interest in Virginia wind never went away, and now Charlottesville-based Apex Clean Energy is pushing ahead with plans for up to 25 turbines on a tract of private land in Botetourt County, 30 miles north of Roanoke. Although development is still in the early stages, the company expects construction to take place in 2017, with electricity flowing that same year.
Apex has years of experience developing wind farms across the country, but this would be its first venture in its home state. The timing seems good; the EPA Clean Power Plan will make renewable energy more valuable to utilities and state officials, and wind energy costs have grown more competitive every year. And while previous wind farm proposals in Virginia have run into opposition from landowners and others, Botetourt County officials unanimously passed a wind ordinance that will allow the project to move forward, with public backing that included an endorsement from the Roanoke Group of the Sierra Club.
Yet anyone who has followed the fates of previous wind farm proposals has to wonder whether Apex can succeed where others have failed. With that in mind, I talked with Apex’s Tyson Utt, Director of Development for the Mid-Atlantic, to gage just how likely we are to see turbines up and running two years from now.
Utt explained that the project is still in the design phase, so a lot of the pieces still have to fall into place. Studies are ongoing to determine the optimal size, type and number of turbines. The project could be as large as 80 megawatts (MW), enough to power up to 20,000 homes, and would represent an investment of up to $150 million. A transmission line crosses the site, and Apex is working with Dominion to ensure grid access.
Apex has not lined up a buyer for the electricity at this stage. Utt said options would include a power purchase agreement (PPA) or sale of the completed project to a utility such as Dominion or APCo. Other possibilities include striking a deal with a corporation that wants to buy wind energy, as Apex has done with Ikea in Illinois and Texas.
Recent events suggest the utilities could be persuaded to take a close look. APCo’s 2015 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) lists wind energy as a low-cost option for complying with the Clean Power Plan. And Dominion, in spite of all-but-dismissing wind in its own IRP, is still pushing aggressively for the right to put turbines on land it owns in Tazewell County.
Apex is not alone in thinking this year could be a turning point for wind energy in our region. Just over the border in eastern North Carolina, the Spanish wind company Iberdrola will hold a groundbreaking ceremony this week on a $600 million, 102-turbine wind farm near Elizabeth City. That project has been in the works since 2011 and was once thought dead after utilities including Dominion and Duke Energy turned down opportunities to buy the power. There has been no word yet on who will buy the power from Iberdrola.*
Making the money work
The wind industry has been buffeted by the stop-start history of the federal Production Tax Credit (PTC). With the credit, the industry boomed. With each expiration, it tanked. Today most observers doubt it will be reauthorized. This isn’t fatal in parts of the country where flat land means low development costs. Wind remains the least-cost energy option in many states. But building wind farms in mountainous areas of the east is a more expensive proposition. (Consider the logistics of hauling hundred-foot-long turbine blades up winding mountain roads.)
So almost my first question to Utt was how he thought Rocky Forge could produce power at a competitive price. Utt acknowledged the challenge posed by the loss of the PTC but insisted that even in Virginia, wind power can be competitive so long as there is some mechanism that levels the playing field with fossil fuels. If it’s not the PTC, he said, perhaps it will be Master Limited Partnerships, which currently offer tax advantages for development of oil and gas but not for wind and solar. Sales of Renewable Energy Certificates will also help bridge the money gap.
With Rocky Forge still in the early stages, and no nearby projects of its own to compare it to, Apex doesn’t yet know where the cost per kilowatt-hour will fall. But bottom line, said Utt, “We think we can be competitive with gas plants.”
These days, of course, solar energy dominates the news, with solar prices tumbling at a breathtaking rate. (Just this month we learned that First Solar Inc. has contracted to sell solar electricity to Nevada Power for 3.87 cents per kilowatt-hour, a new low price record for solar.)
Apex develops solar projects, too, said Utt. But wind and solar “are different,” and both will have roles to play under the Clean Power Plan, which he described as “a game-changer.”
“Millions of dollars in local economic benefit”
Clean energy is popular, but local economic benefits often carry more weight with county officials. Utt said the project will provide “millions of dollars in local economic benefit through tax revenues and local spending on goods and services over the 30 year life of the project.” It will also “create up to 100 full-time equivalent construction jobs and 5 to 10 long-term local operations jobs.”
It surely helps that Apex is itself based in Charlottesville, making it a known quantity. Utt said Apex “has a track record of hiring wind turbine technicians from local wind technician programs similar to the program at nearby Dabney Lancaster. At Dabney Lancaster, several local residents have completed the wind technician program,” but they have to seek jobs in other states. “We would like to see those jobs stay in Virginia.”
For Utt, the jobs question is personal. “I was born and raised in Virginia and wanted to get into wind, and I had to leave the state,” he told me. “I spend most of my time driving to Maryland or North Carolina. We are a Virginia-based company and want to get this industry going here. We have a hundred-some people in Charlottesville, most of them working on projects in other states. We want this to set a precedent for other projects in the state.”
Birds, bats and neighbors
Public acceptance of wind energy can’t be taken for granted in Virginia, but the Rocky Forge site may be as good as it gets here. Much of the area where the turbines will go has been previously cleared, and the land is privately owned. The nearest home is a mile and a half away, and a high-voltage transmission line already crosses the property. No bald eagle nests have been found within a four-mile buffer area, and Utt said the company has had biologists on site every two weeks to study wildlife issues.
Nonetheless, a handful of opponents showed up at the county supervisors’ meeting, with one speaker reportedly comparing Apex building a wind farm to ISIS taking over the Middle East. (A certain level of anti-wind hysteria seems to be endemic to Roanoke. Just a few years ago the Roanoke Tea Party web site warned that renewable energy was part of a United Nations plot to make us all live sustainably, as un-American a concept as could be imagined.)
More seriously, opponents cite concerns about birds and bats. Studies have shown that wind turbines are a relatively minor cause of bird deaths compared to the other ways we humans kill birds (windows, wires, vehicles, pesticides and letting Kitty out the door), but bat mortality is a real concern in the Appalachian Mountains. Utt said he felt the wind industry has learned a great deal about building turbines in bat areas in recent years. Apex will include mitigation measures in its operating plan, such as shutting down the turbines at low wind speeds and during key migration times.
Apex’s proactive approach to wildlife issues, and its early engagement with local residents going back many months, helped it win over local officials and environmental activists. Dan Crawford, the chair of the Roanoke Group of the Sierra Club, invited Apex employees to give a presentation about the project in early May, and the group ended up endorsing the proposal.
The Sierra Club had supported a previous effort to build a wind farm on Poor Mountain, which stalled in 2012 when developer Invenergy gave up on Virginia. The Sierra Club supports appropriately-sited wind farms as part of America’s transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. Crawford says he is hopeful now that the Apex project will move forward.
“Like a dance floor, someone has to be first. Rocky Forge will open the door for future wind power development in Virginia and the Allegheny Mountains of the Southeast.”
*Update: Later on July 13, the buyer was revealed to be Amazon Web Services. Anybody notice a trend?