Wind energy is bound to be a big part of the state’s future healthier energy mix. That’s part of what former Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Preston Bryant told a class of high school leaders at the University of Virginia last weekend.
Virginia’s residents who might live near tall whooshing towers have not yet decided to go Dutch. Windmills, which have moved water-pumps in Holland for five centuries, are not yet in high demand as artistic objects for producing energy in Virginia. But they are practical, and they are coming, however slowly.
State officials are starting to grasp their huge potential – they can take away tons of greenhouse gasses through clean power production, eventually curbing the use of dirtier carbon-based energy. Bryant said one reason he is very big on Virginia wind energy development, both onshore and offshore, is that the state has “good, strong winds, a relatively shallow Outer Continental shelf and we can thread a transmission cable [from 12 miles offshore] between the North Carolina and Virginia barrier islands to an existing near-shore power station in Virginia Beach.”
The potential yield of wind farms is starting to rival coal and nuclear, experts say. Bryant said Virginia has, just offshore, the wind energy to produce one-third of what is produced by all the state’s coal power plants or more than half what is produced by the state’s nuclear plants. He said simply exploiting offshore wind could give Virginia the equivalent of more than six coal power plants the size of one being built in Wise County.
What has kept Virginia out of the wind market so far is mostly the cost, but that is now reasonable enough to start harnessing rich wind-power generating capacity from the mountains to the sea.
Mountaintops and ridges along the western third of the state and offshore waters in the Atlantic Ocean offer the state’s best hopes for harnessing energy from Virginia’s most sustained winds. Yet, many residents are not convinced the benefits would outweigh the potential harms, such as spoiling views and habitats, killing animals and possibly getting in the way of military or civilian aircraft or naval training and shipping operations. Many towers, 150 to 400 feet tall, designed to capture that energy would be noticed on mountain ridges. The state’s mountaintops have fiercely protective neighbors willing to go to bat for bats, birds, unspoiled views and the notion that tall towers are someone else’s solutions to someone else’s problems.
Wind energy generation, as clean as it could be, is not universally accepted as a common, or a community resource. But big energy companies, small firms and even individuals see more potential and are pushing for new projects.
A Highland County project is under construction after years of planning and zoning and court fights. The wind farm along ridge tops would generate about 38 megawatts of electric power, or enough to take care of about 15,000 homes. Nearby is an 1861 Civil War battlefield in Pocahontis County, W.Va. Its defenders are rattling legal sabers against placing the towers within the battlefield’s viewshed. The wind farm’s opponents on both sides of the state line threaten more court action to avoid changing the 150-year-old battlefield’s landscape. West Virginia politicians have joined the fight but so far all courts involved have given green lights to the green energy project.
“It was a great petri dish exercise in democracy,” said Bryant, now a senior vice president at McGuire Woods Consulting. As the county’s three-member Board of Supervisors voted 2-1 to approve the project, “it pitted neighbor against neighbor.”
Some of the big power companies in the state and nation are embracing wind energy in new ways. Last year, Dominion Virginia Power announced plans to pursue two wind energy projects in Southwest Virginia, one in Tazewell County and one in Wise County. In the past year, Dominion and BP Wind Energy bought 2,560 acres in Tazewell County for one of the prospective wind projects. The Tazewell County Board of Supervisors, however, recently voted 3-2 to block any structures taller than 40 feet near the county’s affected ridgelines. The potential wind-power developers must be in the business for the long haul to see projects to fruition.
Even on a still day, it is easy to predict now that both wind and wind farms are coming to western mountains and offshore 12 miles or so – beyond sight from the shoreline. Virginia Beach officials, as well as the oceanfront city’s business community, now back offshore wind farms, and the military is softening its objections.
Opponents are still coming forward to fight wind farm proposals. One project proposed for a ridgeline in Roanoke County drew opposition last week from pilots who warned that 18 windmills atop Poor Mountain could lead to delays or diversions of flights trying to land at Roanoke Regional Airport in bad weather. Patrick County in Southwest Virginia along the Blue Ridge Mountains had no zoning ordinance until some folks looking at wind farms there got others concerned enough that they went to the local government. Patrick County now has zoning and a ban on wind farm power generation.
Expansion of solar, biomass, geothermal and nuclear power generation also is planned across Virginia to help relieve some reliance on traditional carbon-based generation, Bryant said. Additionally, Virginia is expecting its fifth nuclear power reactor to come on line in Louisa County in about seven years, he said. The state currently has four nuclear reactors owned by Dominion and has issued early site permits for the fifth, which is now going through the federal permitting process.
Virginia’s power needs are growing and the state already imports more than half the power generation it uses. Whatever the new mix of energy sources for power generation, wind is here to stay and to be harnessed increasingly for power.