Rockbridge County officials
As more area residents realize their vulnerability to volatile energy prices, some are looking to wind power, but its future as an alternative energy source in Rockbridge County is up in the air.
In response to residents’ requests, the county Board of Supervisors invited Jon Miles and Maria Papadakis, two James Madison University professors in the Department of Integrated Science and Technology, to explain wind turbine possibilities in the area at the supervisors’ Jan. 26 meeting.
Those possibilities appear to be limited. Papadakis said that so-called large-wind farms with turbines hundreds of feet tall are unrealistic for Rockbridge County.
The county’s areas of highest elevation, and thus greatest wind power, are mostly located in the George Washington National Forest and managed by the government.
That means that the majority of land available for wind turbine use is off-limits to private citizens and would require the government to initiate the construction.
“As long as it's in the county, there's going to be pretty prudent application of restrictions," he said.
During the meeting, Miles and Papadakis described how wind turbines work to harness the wind’s kinetic energy and generate electricity that can be used by homes or sold back to energy companies via the power grid, a process called net metering.
The three-bladed wind turbines can be either mounted on a free-standing tower or connected to a building.
Papadakis said wind energy is appealing because it is renewable and does not produce air pollution, unlike fossil fuels. It can also act as a backup energy source if the power grid fails.
Wind is cheaper than other types of energy per kilowatt hour, the standard unit of energy. Wind energy typically costs between 5 and 7 cents per kilowatt hour as opposed to the up to 10 cents that many residents pay for electric power generated by more conventional means.
But those cheaper energy prices come with a considerable investment in capital, Papadakis said – as much as $10,000 for a small-scale turbine. Large turbines can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Because of that, the majority of the area is suitable only for small-wind turbines. But most of the small-scale operations produce up to 10 kilowatts only, which isn’t enough to power a home, Papadakis said.
The county already has a wind ordinance for small-wind energy systems that includes obtaining a permit and a 100-foot height restriction.
He said turbines can also disrupt the migration paths of birds and bats, or even kill them.
On the plus side, Papadakis said that large turbines can often increase tourism because of their novelty.
But Wise disagreed, saying that Rockbridge County already has a profitable tourism industry and that wind turbines could affect the views and landscape that travelers and residents cherish.
“There’s just some places that should be maintained as wilderness,” Wise said.
The National Park Service must also approve construction of a wind turbine to assure that it does not detract from parkway views in any area seen from the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Currently, wind power comprises about 1 percent of the energy used in the nation. In May 2008 the U.S. Department of Energy released a plan to boost that number to 20 percent by 2030.
The plan has been praised by environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, as security from global warming and a means for the U.S. to become energy independent.
Wise agrees that wind is an important renewable resource, but he doesn’t think it’s the answer to energy problems.
“The real way out of our energy crisis is to conserve,” he said. “That should be done first.”