Planners to consider wind turbines

The winds of change may soon be sweeping through Rockbridge County.

Larry Mann, co-president of Rockbridge Area Conservation Council (RACC), owns a small-scale residential windmill that he uses to back up his solar panels during bad weather. His wind turbine sits on a 30-foot pole at his home in Rockbridge County.

Rockbridge County resident Larry Mann says that if supervisors ease the height restriction he might consider get a bigger, more powerful turbine.
(REBECCA BRATU/ Rockbridge Report)

“Ours is a ridiculously small turbine,” Mann said. “[It] generates 500 watts at peak power. That’s five 100-watt bulbs.”

“It’s designed as an alternative to a backup generator,” he said.
Mann’s small experiment could be a forerunner to bigger wind-power sources, if area planners have their way.

Rockbridge County and Lexington have a 35-foot restriction on the height of accessory structures, which include windmills. But the Rockbridge County Planning Commission is analyzing a proposal from a windmill company based in Charlottesville for an ordinance that would allow residents to put larger, more powerful wind turbines on their properties.

The ordinance has been drafted, and the Planning Commission will begin reviewing it Oct.  8.
“I’m sure that we’ll be able to craft something that will work,” said Chris Wise, vice chairman of the commission and Washington and Lee University environmental management coordinator. “But whether or not it makes economic sense to put in a windmill for personal power generation, we can’t get into that. It’s the individual property owner’s decision.”

If the wind turbines are to be efficient, they need to go well beyond 35 feet in height. Wind speed and therefore turbine performance increase with altitude. The turbine needs to be raised on a tower that would have to be well above 100 feet tall, according to Gregg Amonette, former partner in a Massachusetts wind turbine development corporation. Amonette now resides in Rockbridge Baths and is a member of RACC.

According to the American Wind Energy Association, a small turbine can cost from $6,000 to $22,000 installed, depending upon size, application, and service agreements with the manufacturer. The turbine can produce electricity worth up to $100 a month. The wind system will usually recoup its investment through utility savings in six to 15 years, and after that the electricity it produces will be virtually free.

“We want Rockbridge to be a green county, so we have to accept wind energy,” Rockbridge County Supervisor Mack Smith said. “[The windmills] are part of the future.”

When properly configured, this small wind turbine can provide up to 12 hours of backup electricity.
(REBECCA BRATU/ Rockbridge Report)

Smith and other supervisors are awaiting the Planning Commission’s recommendation regarding the change in the 35-foot height regulation.

The height of the tower, however, is not the only concern to be analyzed by the Planning Commission. Before launching a proposal to the Board of Supervisors, the members will look at advantages and disadvantages associated with turbines, and how other localities in Virginia have dealt with the issue. And if the height ordinance is to be changed, it will also have to be discussed at a public hearing.

The potential noise caused by the turbines and how they will affect the bird or bat populations are among the concerns Wise anticipates hearing from county residents.

“Sometimes the blades ice up in the middle of the winter, and when that ice melts off, there’s this huge chunk of ice that gets thrown off,” Wise said.

And then there are aesthetics.

“This is going to be a real issue, because we’ve got energy needs on one hand, and on the other hand we have a situation where we depend a lot on … having natural beauty,” Wise said. “And I don’t think that our notion right now of natural beauty is to have wind turbines all along the top of all the ridges."

The turbines have large blades that look like airplane propellers posted on tall, vertical towers, Amonette said. Wise says he is confident an ordinance will pass in the county, although wind turbines will be approved case by case and there will likely be a height limit for the towers.

Amonette believes wind power in Rockbridge County is not sufficient to make residential turbines economically worth the high cost.

“People tend to overestimate the winds here,” Amonette said.
He thinks the turbines lend themselves best to commercial and industrial use, where more generators can be clustered together.

“If you really want some form of alternative power, there are other, better methods available in Rockbridge,” Amonette said.

Solar energy, for example, is free and unlimited. And solar electricity, albeit expensive, is available to everyone.

But Smith believes the height ordinance should go through in Rockbridge.

“We just live in an environment where everybody complains, even though they know we need these things,” he said. 


Chris Wise, vice chair of the county Planning Commission, thinks a compromise can be reached. (REBECCA BRATU/ Rockbridge Report)

Turbine Facts:

The driving force of a wind turbine is the blades. Most turbines have either two or three blades. These blades act like wings on an airplane. When wind blows over the blade it causes them to lift and then rotate.

The blades are connected to a shaft by a hub. The movement of the blades rotates the hub, which makes the shaft spin. Energy created from this spinning is turned into electricity in the generator and then stored in batteries or transferred to home power grids or utility companies for regular use.

If the wind is not blowing hard enough wind turbines cannot produce electricity. In addition, if the wind is blowing too hard, usually at speeds over 50 mph, wind turbines will be turned off as a precautionary measure.


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