Virginia is attracting wind power projects

In addition, wind power executives are evaluating wind-velocity tests from sites in Botetourt and Pulaski counties, as previously reported. And at least five of the biggest names nationally in the wind energy business are now evaluating Southwest Virginia, with three of them looking at Floyd County, according to interviews and publicly available information.

In and around Wills Ridge, one of the highest points in Floyd County, wind representatives of Houston, Texas-based Horizon Wind Energy LLC, the nation’s third largest wind farm producer, have visited landowners to drop off packets of information and photos of wind farming and draft land leases.

Nordex USA Inc., based in Chicago, a wind turbines builder getting into wind production, has approached landowners in that general area, too, said Tim Vought, senior project manager. 

Some Floyd County landowners — at least preliminarily– think they could support wind turbines being put up on their property, for which they would be paid. They say they want to help wind power executives bring clean energy to America. Some Floyd residents already have installed solar power panels, so the area is already on record as supporting renewable power.

"We need to be looking for other sources of energy," said Sherrell Poff, a Floyd County farmer on whose land Invenergy of Chicago, Ill., is gathering wind data from a meteorological tower. "I’m definitely for wind energy."

Wind power, in which the kinetic force of wind is converted to electricity, is the world’s fastest-growing new source of energy. With wind turbines turning in 86 countries, wind power supplied 2.5 percent of global electricity use in 2010. In the United States, it’s 2.3 percent.

After at least 10 years of rapid industry growth, many states have wind farms and are adding new ones rapidly, led by Texas, Iowa, California, Oregon and Washington. Virginia is without a single wind farm, but policymakers say they support and will promote renewable energy.

Both the state and federal government offer financial incentives, and the Virginia General Assembly has streamlined the state-level permitting process and directed local governments to do the same. The domestic wind energy industry expanded first in those parts of the country with the most wind and transmission resources. Virginia is not on that list.

"There’s OK wind in Virginia, but not great wind relative to what you got in Texas or the Midwest," said Horizon spokesman Roby Roberts.

However, wind farm companies will be looking more closely at Virginia and other less-windy states because a new generation of wind turbines works well in lower wind, making sites once thought marginal more economical and competitive, Roberts said.

Even so, Ken Jurman, renewable energy program manager at the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, predicted that onshore wind power development "is not going to be a huge deal in Virginia." That could change if federal officials decide to liberally permit wind turbines in national forests, but he called that unlikely.

What wind there is blows across ridgetops, especially in the western part of the state, which is why wind farm companies are focusing on Southwest Virginia, among other locations.

Landowner sentiment could prove critical to determining whether wind energy advances in Floyd because the county does not have zoning and essentially leaves land-use decisions to property owners themselves. By contrast, Roanoke County regulates where housing, businesses and industry go with zoning regulations. Roanoke County is on the verge of adopting specific zoning for utility-scale wind farms with such terms as a minimum distance from homes of 1/2 of a mile.

Although building permits are required, "any type of use can occur on any parcel of land in Floyd County as determined by the buyer of that land," except for parcels with conservation or scenic easements such as the Blue Ridge Parkway or Buffalo Mountain, according to a county report.

But the issue is still divisive. Lowell Boothe, a farmer who lives below Wills Ridge, met with a Horizon Wind Energy representative seeking land parcels on which to erect a dozen or more wind turbines. One finger of his 150-acre farm tops the tree-covered Wills Ridge.

While he opposes leasing the whole farm, "if they want a strip of land on top the ridge, I wouldn’t have a problem with that," he said. "I’m not opposed to it. It’s clean electricity and, once they’re built, wind is free so it’s cheap power," Boothe said.

The list of factors for her and her brother to consider will be long and include the compensation that wind energy companies routinely give to private landowners on whose property they erect wind turbines, generators and required equipment.

Horizon’s representative gave Boothe a fee schedule saying the landowner would receive $10 per acre or $1,000 annually, whichever is greater, during construction of the towers, which would be 340 feet to 495 feet tall or about half as high as Wills Ridge rises above his home.

During the operational phase, all involved landowners would receive 3 percent of gross revenue from the wind farm project’s electricity sales, split according to how many towers are on each landowner’s property, the schedule said.

Boothe said he was told the cut of revenue could fall between $5,000 and $12,000 a year. But that payday could be a long way off since construction of the towers might not begin for seven or eight years, he was told.

That appears to give Floyd officials such as Case Clinger, a member of the board of supervisors, time to study up on a complex issue. Clinger said he is learning about the possible regulatory authority that county officials may have or could acquire. He said he and other leaders would like to shape how wind energy farms operate in Floyd.

Jeff Sturgeon,