For the second time in as many years, the developer of what would be the first commercial wind farm in Virginia has pushed back its plans to start construction.
Apex Clean Energy will not start site work by the end of this year, as originally planned, on a project to build up to 25 giant, power-generating turbines on top of a Botetourt County mountain, a company official said Wednesday.
“Though the original schedule for starting construction this year has slipped, we are still receiving strong interest in the project from counterparties,” Brooke Beaver, a spokeswoman for the Charlottesville company, wrote in an email.
Supporters of the project say it would be the first in Virginia to produce the kind of renewable energy needed to preserve a planet being polluted and warmed by coal-burning power plants. Critics argue that wind farms scar the landscape and don’t produce enough power.
When Apex first announced the Rocky Forge Wind project in 2015, the plan was to start work by the end of 2016 on turbines — each one as tall as 550 feet, or about the height of the Washington Monument — that would begin generating electricity from a remote North Mountain ridgeline sometime this year.
That timeline was later pushed back a year, with a new goal of starting construction this November or December for a project that would go online sometime in 2018.
Now that those plans are off, “we’re working to find the right partner to commercialize Rocky Forge,” Beaver wrote. “We do not yet have a specific date for the start of construction, but are working steadfastly toward that goal.”
Beaver said a later start date would allow Apex to take advantage of “even newer technology that will make the project even more competitive.”
That could mean the company would have not have to build as many as 25 turbines to produce the same amount of electricity — 75 megawatts, or enough to power about 20,000 homes.
Another challenge for the company has been finding a utility willing to purchase the electricity it plans to generate.
When Apex development manager Charlie Johnson gave an update to the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors in July — saying the company was “working diligently” to begin work by the end of this year — he confirmed that there was no power purchase agreement.
Johnson said at the time that the company would prefer to have such a deal in place before starting the first phase of construction, which entails making a road to the top of North Mountain large enough to handle the transport of pieces of the huge turbines to the summit, where they would be assembled.
That phase needs to be done in the winter months, when bats are in hibernation and not as vulnerable to harm from tree cutting, blasting and other construction work.
Apex officials stressed that they remain committed to the project, and that they still have the support of local, state and federal officials who already have granted nearly all of the permits needed for construction to start.
“We always knew that building Virginia’s first onshore wind facility would be complicated, but we stand behind Apex’s ability to bring this project to completion here in Botetourt,” board of supervisors Chairman Jack Leffel said.
“We know how many benefits this project can bring to our community, and we want to do whatever we can to get it built as soon as possible.”
Although critics of wind farms have called them eyesores that make too much noise and cause harmful shadow flickers, opposition in Botetourt has not been as strong as in other Southwest Virginia localities where wind farm plans have been raised and later dropped over the past decade.
When the board of supervisors approved a special-exception permit for the Apex project in January 2016, supporters at a public hearing outnumbered opponents by nearly 2-to-1.
The wind farm site is on privately owned, remote land northeast of Eagle Rock and close to the boundary with Rockbridge County, where opponents have formed an organization called Virginians for Responsible Energy.
Steve Neas, a member of the group, said Wednesday that he believes the wind farm’s capacity of 75 megawatts is not enough to make it attractive to either a power company shopping for renewable energy or investors willing to commit to the project.
“My guess is that they’re having a hard time lining up people to buy their power,” Neas said. The wind just doesn’t blow strong or long enough atop North Mountain to make the project viable, he said.
“I’ve believed from the very beginning that the problem with this project is that it is not properly sited,” Neas said.
Apex contended in its statement that with the latest delay, the company has “the opportunity to utilize newer turbine technology, making Rocky Forge even more competitive in the market and further decreasing the cost of the energy it can produce.”
“Virginia has experienced tremendous growth in solar energy in the past year, and we look forward to adding wind energy to the generation mix.”
There’s still time for the company to get the project moving. The permit granted by Botetourt County last year has a five-year lifespan. And approval from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has no termination date, spokesman Bill Hayden said.
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