BP needs SEP to collect wind data on North Mountain near Eagle Rock

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BOTETOURT – BP (British Petroleum), the beleaguered operator of the Deep Water Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, has an interest in seeing what the wind is like on North Mountain in the northern part of Botetourt County.

The company has been collecting meteorological data—primarily wind speed and direction—through its BP Wind Energy division since April 2009 to determine if the mountain might be suitable for electricity-generating wind turbines.

The company realized late this spring it needed a special exceptions permit (SEP) for the 198-foot pole it erected on the crest of the mountain that runs in a northeasterly direction and straddles the Botetourt/Rockbridge County line.

The meteorological pole or tower is on 4,350 acres owned by the Jerry Fraley family as part of the Fraley Family Restated Irrevocable Dynasty Trust.

When BP Wind Energy realized it needed an SEP, the company notified the county Planning and Zoning Office, Zoning Administrator Chuck Supan said. That started the procedure for the company to apply for the SEP.

The tower is more of a pole, Supan said. It has just a 4-inch base, but its height is what is out of compliance with the county code that allows structures not taller than 40 feet without an SEP on property zoned Forest Conservation Districts.

The tower is held up by guide wires, and, essentially, isn’t visible because of how remote the mountain is.

Jerry Fraley has expressed an interest in wind energy in the past. He is a coal operator in Big Stone Gap and has owned much of North Mountain for several years. He manages the land for wildlife habitat and hunting, although he has had at least two proposed commercial ventures involving part of the property fall through in recent years.

In 2005, Nestle tested a spring on the property that’s off Dagger Springs Road and the Bluegrass Trail north of Eagle Rock. Nestle was searching for a source of spring water to bottle and sell.

The spring showed signs of surface water infiltration and would not work for the beverage bottling giant.

Two years later, General Shale was interested in establishing a shale quarry on another part of the property farther north off US 220. Neighbors opposed that proposal and it died.

BP Wind Energy is a part of BP Alternative Energy. The wind energy component of the multi-national company has wind farms in seven states in the U.S. where it produces electricity for sale to electric utilities.

The company also has interests and supports research into other alternative energy sources. It has a solar power division, biofuels division, hydrogen power division and is interested in carbon capture and storage (CCS), a process of reducing carbon in the atmosphere by capturing it and storing it in underground geological spaces that would hold it.

Earlier this year, Botetourt officials dealt with the county’s first wind generating turbine or windmill that was higher than 40 feet.

The planners and Board of Supervisors approved the 60-foot windmill for a single-family home, but not without some concern from neighbors and with stipulations.

As the planners were going through that process, Planning Commission Chairman Chris Whitely suggested the county become “proactive” so the county is ready to deal with wind energy, or wind farms in the future.

At the time, Roanoke County was learning more about a proposed windmill farm on Poor Mountain in south Roanoke County.

At the time, Whitley said the issues that arise from wind farm development don’t come from the utility companies that buy the power, but from developers who may not have a lot of experience with wind farms.

He said the wind turbines themselves can be massive—400 feet or more, with 40-foot foundations in the ground—but there are roads and other infrastructure such as the interconnect substations that go along with developing ridgeline wind farms.

He said both sides of the wind turbine issue have valid arguments.

Associate Planner Jeff Busby has been designated the “wind farm expert” in the planning office and he had already started looking at ordinances in other communities that might work in Botetourt and some of the issues that may arise with wind farms.

Supan said his office hoped to be ready for a workshop for the planners on the matter this year.

Busby and Associate Planner Tim Ward said Botetourt only has two mountainous areas that have enough wind to be considered for wind farms. That’s according to James Madison University’s wind energy survey of Virginia.

One area is the Fraley property on North Mountain and the other is along the Blue Ridge on federally owned land.

The planners have scheduled a public hearing on BP’s SEP request and a text amendment request on Monday, Aug. 9 at 6 p.m. in the Old General District Courthouse in Fincastle. The supervisors are scheduled to hear the requests at their regular meeting on August 24.