Wind energy in the U.S. has increased drastically in the last decade and is expected to keep growing. Over 40 states have utility-scale wind power on land, but Virginia is not one of them.
Southwest Virginia has generated interest for several wind power projects, but none of them have come to fruition to date.
Still, the region is suitable for cost-effective wind energy, said Jonathan Miles, executive director for the Center for Advancement of Sustainable Energy at James Madison University.
“If you can conjure in your mind a topographical map of Virginia, you can see the ridges that run southwest to northeast, pretty close to the border of West Virginia,” Miles said. “Those ridges are where some of the best wind resources in the state are.”
Apex Clean Energy of Charlottesville has been working since 2015 to make Southwest Virginia home to the first utility-scale wind farm on land. But the Rocky Forge project in Botetourt County has faced numerous setbacks since then.
Pulaski, Wise, Tazewell, Caroll, Floyd, and Rockingham are just some of the other counties that have generated interest for wind energy projects.
“Sites that have been explored and may at some point be developed, all these areas tend to be farther to the west and south of the state,” Miles said.
But currently, none of these counties have plans for commercial wind farms.
Dominion Energy still owns about 2,500 acres of land in Tazewell County, where the company planned to pursue wind energy projects around 2009. This project never panned out, in part due to community and local government pushback. (Full disclosure: Dominion is one of our donors but donors have no influence on our editorial decisions. Read our policy here.)
Jeremy Slayton, communications specialist at Dominion, said the company is now more focused on offshore wind projects online. Dominion turbines 27 miles off the coast of Virginia became operational in October 2020, Slayton said.
“That’s where we’re putting our focus,” he said.
There are a number of reasons that Virginia has been left out of the wind energy loop, Miles said.
“Virginia, unlike most other states, did not have any goal mandating the deployment of renewable energy until very recently,” he said.
Gov. Ralph Northam’s Executive Order 43 in 2019, coupled with last year’s Virginia Clean Economy Act, is helping to “turn the tide,” Miles said.
“We’ve crossed a threshold with the Clean Economy Act passing last year,” he said. “Politically and in terms of policy, there’s more interest in wind energy driving things forward in this moment.”
Appalachian Power, the utility that serves much of western Virginia, will begin to incorporate wind power soon to meet targets set by the Clean Economy Act, said Teresa Hamilton Hall, the company’s senior corporate communications consultant.
In the company’s most recent annual plan, filed in November 2020, Appalachian Power wrote that it plans to “acquire or contract 200 megawatts of wind in the next five years.”
And by 2050, the company expects to add 2,200 megawatts of onshore wind, according to Hall.
Appalachian Power has not yet filed its 2021 annual plan, but it expects to in the coming weeks, she said.
Still, electricity rates in the Commonwealth remain low compared to other states, especially to the north. This is one factor that makes it difficult for developers to build wind projects cost-effectively, Miles said.
Most of Virginia’s neighboring states already have on-land commercial wind, he said.
West Virginia has an installed capacity of 742 megawatts of wind energy, and both North Carolinaand Maryland are producing around 200 megawatts, according to the American Clean Power Association. Virginia is producing zero.
“We’ve been at it a long time and it’s only in the last couple of years with legislation and with the really strong attention on climate that’s starting to gain a lot of momentum,” Miles said.
And community pushback and county ordinances have also been common obstacles of utility-scale wind in Southwest Virginia.
“Nimbyism is strong in Virginia,” said Mark Hanson, wind and solar power advocate of Fincastle. “And you initially have to fight city hall.”
Last year, Apex requested the revision of a Botetourt County ordinance that limited maximum turbine height to 550 feet.
Wind technology had changed since 2015, and the project now needed taller turbines, according to Rocky Forge Wind. This was yet another setback to its development.
The planning commission eventually recommended approval for taller wind turbines, now limiting height to 680 feet. The ordinance revision would apply to all wind farms in Botetourt, though Rocky Forge is the only one planned right now.
And now, Rocky Forge is facing a lawsuit filed Nov. 10 by a group that opposes the project. This is the second time Citizens for Responsible Energy has gone to court in an effort to halt the wind project. Opponents say the turbines would ruin the viewshed and endanger wildlife.
The proposed 14 turbines are expected to generate 75 megawatts of power, about enough energy to power up to 21,000 U.S. homes, according to the Rocky Forge website.
It will also create around 250 full-time equivalent jobs and significant local spending during construction, and about seven full-time jobs for operations and maintenance.
The wind farm is slated for a ridgeline just outside of Eagle Rock, and the hills here raise the elevation of the turbines even higher.
“You have to be above 2,300 feet and 12 miles-per-hour average annual wind speed for a good wind farm business,” Hanson said.
These factors have stymied wind energy in Virginia in the past, but both Miles and Slayton said they are optimistic about the future of wind in the state.
“We have good sites for doing this and Rocky Forge is on the verge of construction,” Miles said. “And we have one of the most aggressive legislative goals that call for our state to decarbonize our power generation by 2045.”
A lot of solar power has been installed in the last decade, Miles said, and Slayton said this is good news because solar is very complementary to wind.
“Solar works well during the summer months and during the day, and offshore wind works better during winter and at night,” Slayton said.
Miles said he is also optimistic because Virginia’s wind and solar resources are geographically well-distributed.
“We have all this wind potential on the western side of the state, but then we have all this wind on the eastern side, offshore,” he said. “And in between we’ve got all the solar resources. What I’m getting at here is there’s an opportunity for almost any part of the state to be involved in this. It might be solar, wind or both, but we’re really well situated to be a strong contributor in renewables.”
Updated 10:49 a.m. to clarify dates of Dominion’s wind turbines, list of counties and target dates.