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FAA finds no danger from latest plan for Botetourt County wind farm

FAA finds no danger from latest plan for Botetourt County wind farm

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The Federal Aviation Administration has found, once again, that wind turbines high above a Botetourt County mountaintop will not pose a hazard to air navigation.

Issued last week, the finding was the latest in a string of approvals and reapprovals since 2015, when Apex Clean Energy announced plans for what will be the first onshore wind farm in Virginia.

Construction of the renewable energy project — which in its latest form will consist of 15 turbines standing 624 feet tall atop North Mountain — is expected to start soon.

“Tree trimming and clearing is set to begin as soon as early February,” Apex spokeswoman Natasha Montague wrote in an email Monday. It is expected to take about a year to complete construction of what will be called Rocky Forge Wind.

The Charlottesville company received a letter last week from the FAA, saying the wind farm “would have no substantial adverse effect on the safe and efficient utilization of the navigable airspace.”

The closest public airport, Ingalls Field in Bath County, is about 15 nautical miles from the wind farm site, which is on a 7,000-acre tract of isolated woodlands about 5 miles northeast of Eagle Rock.

During a public comment period last year, one of six letters received by the FAA raised concerns about the danger posed to low-flying military jets, which conduct training exercises not far from the site.

The U.S. Air Force and the Department of Defense have been contacted by the agency and have no objections as long as the turbines are lighted with a system that is compatible with night vision goggles used by the jet pilots, the FAA letter stated.

Another concern was that the turbines — which will be about twice as tall as the Wells Fargo tower in downtown Roanoke — might endanger helicopters responding to medical emergencies or forest fires.

But obstruction regulations do not apply to helicopters unless the potential hazard is near a landing or takeoff area or along an established route. “Helicopter pilots must also operate at a speed that will allow them to see and avoid obstructions,” the FAA letter stated.

The FAA’s analysis was for 18 turbines as tall as 680 feet, which were the dimensions Apex submitted last year during a second round of applications to local, state and federal agencies.

Since then, a site plan submitted to Botetourt County indicates that the facility will consist of 15 turbines at 624 feet tall. The county is still waiting for final details in a revised plan from Apex, according to Cody Sexton, assistant to the county administrator.

When the wind farm was first proposed, Apex planned to build up to 25 turbines at a maximum height of 550 feet. But several years passed before a buyer was found for the approximately 75 megawatts of electricity to be produced by the wind farm.

Under a deal announced in 2019, the state of Virginia will purchase the power to help meet its goal of using renewable sources for at least 30% of the electricity consumed by state agencies by 2022.

Improvements in technology led to a second round of applications for fewer turbines, but at a greater height than originally planned.

Meanwhile, Apex is taking applications for a community grant program it created last year to assist nonprofit efforts in one of four areas involving wind energy: economic development, building healthy communities, promoting education or environmental sustainability.

Details can be found at www.rockyforgewind.com/grant.

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Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.

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