For the wind: Charlottesville firm behind source of renewable energy option

Rocky Forge Wind will be a mile away from the nearest residence. Courtesy Apex Clean Energy Rocky Forge Wind will be a mile away from the nearest residence. Courtesy Apex Clean Energy

Despite the history of a failed wind farm in Highland County, a local renewable energy firm is on track to build the first one in Virginia.

Apex Clean Energy, which has 167 employees in Charlottesville, received a permit from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in March to build Rocky Forge Wind, an array of up to 25 modern, slow-spinning, 550-foot-tall wind turbines on about 10,000 acres of private land in Botetourt County. The 75-megawatt farm will produce enough energy to power up to 20,000 homes annually.

“We are working really hard to do Virginia’s first wind project right,” says Kevin Chandler, a senior manager of federal affairs at Apex. “We’re pursuing Rocky Forge because it’s one of the better sites for wind in the Southeast.”

While he says harnessing power from the wind hasn’t always made sense in Virginia, it does at Rocky Forge. The future farm’s site in rural Botetourt County has some of the highest nearby wind speeds and elevations, with the closest home being about a mile away. Its proximity to state highways also makes it convenient for transporting turbine components, and it’s already located near existing high-voltage power lines.

“It’s a way for us to preserve our part [of the county],” says Jack Leffel, the chair of the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors. “Folks in my part of the world want to keep open land. This is a way to have a tax base and do that.”

Although the project was approved, Leffel says they received major backlash from out-of-towners. Of the concerns presented to him, he says, “None of them are valid.”

Noise pollution has been a longstanding worry about building giant fields full of windmills that are double the height of the Statue of Liberty. “That’s a blatant lie,” Leffel says. “I’ve been to several wind farms and there is no noise. Fifty yards away, it’s a whisper.”

Project developer Charlie Johnson agrees, and also stresses these types of farms have a limited impact on birds: Wind turbines contribute to less than 0.0003 percent of human-caused avian fatalities, according to a National Academy of Sciences study.

Johnson says there’s a growing demand for cleaner electricity and customers now expect access to renewables. More than 100,000 wind jobs exist nationwide, which is more than those for coal and natural gas.

But when Highland County landowner Henry T. McBride got the okay from his local officials to erect up to 19 turbines 70 miles northwest of Charlottesville in 2005, he was met with massive opposition from those who protested the industrialization of the county’s wilderness, feared the havoc it would wreak on bird and bat populations, and who later sued the local government in an effort to reverse its decision.

Though McBride spent years bobbing and weaving through a complex regulatory process, the State Corporation Commission eventually approved his project, and construction began in August 2009. The project was never completed and McBride declined to comment on what happened.

Rocky Forge Wind’s anticipated date of commercial operation is 2018.