Rocky Forge project faces stiff headwinds
Eight years after it was first proposed, Virginia’s first onshore wind farm remains grounded behind regulatory, legal and political obstacles.
Charlottesville-based Apex Clean Energy first announced plans for its Rocky Forge wind farm in 2015. Apex aimed to have blades spinning by 2017 on 25, 550-foot-tall wind turbines on North Mountain, in a remote section of Botetourt County.
At first, the project seemed on track. County supervisors granted a permit in 2016, and a year later the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality granted final approval. But then Apex ran into issues finding a buyer for the proposed wind farm’s energy.
Years passed before Dominion Energy struck a deal to purchase the power and resell it to Virginia state government to help meet its goal of sourcing at least 30% of electricity for state agencies from renewable energy sources. More obstacles developed, and the contract expired and wasn’t renewed.
Wind technology also evolved, prompting Apex to reformulate its proposal, reducing the number of turbines from 25 to 13, but increasing the size of each to 643 feet high.
Additionally, a group of landowners in Botetourt and Rockbridge counties organized against Rocky Forge, joined by grassroots group Virginians for Responsible Energy. In 2020, 13 landowners filed a lawsuit challenging the DEQ’s approval. A circuit court upheld the permit, but the decision was appealed to the Virginia Court of Appeals. The group also has challenged the county’s extension of a site plan deadline and its approval of a temporary concrete-making facility near the Rocky Forge site.
Botetourt County spokesperson Tiffany Bradbury says county staff are still reviewing the newest plans for Rocky Forge. The county is allowing tree cutting and forestry at the site, “but we have issued no approvals for construction,” writes Bradbury.
Onshore wind projects require willing private landowners and proximity to transmission lines that can move the power to where it’s needed, says Dan Crawford, chair of onshore wind promotion for environmental group the Sierra Club’s Roanoke chapter, which supports the project.
“Some people tell me, ‘We don’t need turbines on our mountains; we’re going to have offshore wind,’” Crawford says. “We need everything we can get. We need offshore, especially for big consumption near the shore, and we need onshore. It’s competitive in terms of price, and it works. People just don’t want to see it.”