With the rising cost of electricity, many homeowners are seeking ways to generate power on their property. Could wind turbines be part of the answer for Albemarle County residents?

That was the basic question explored in a work session held by the County Planning Commission on May 13, 2008. Mark Graham, the Director of Community Development, briefed the Commission on how wind power works, and explained that the structures are currently not permitted under existing zoning. He also assessed the viability for a commercial wind farm, and the results aren’t promising.

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To generate enough electricity to be commercially successful, an operator needs sustained winds, close access to the national power grid and transmission lines, as well as roads that can transport very heavy components. A wind resource map created by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) shows only a handful of spots in Albemarle County, such as Bucks Elbow, where a commercial site might work. However, Graham suggested the site’s proximity to Shenandoah National Park would likely prevent any application from being permitted by the State Corporation Commission.

An example of a small wind turbine

However, the bulk of the work session dealt with whether the County zoning ordinances should be amended to allow small wind turbines for residential or agricultural use. To be effective in generating a current, a turbine must be tall enough to catch sustained winds. The taller the tower, the more power is generated. Turbines also need enough clearance to avoid causing turbulence in surrounding structures.  Graham said the bottom of the rotor needs to be at least thirty foot above rooftops or landscaping.

“Right now under the zoning ordinance with residential properties, the maximum height for structures is 35 feet,” Graham said. He also pointed to a chart that showed how taller towers can greatly maximize the voltage generated, but said the smaller ones could power well pumps.

Graham said mountainsides and hilltops are the best locations for turbines in Albemarle County, but if they are permitted, a land-owner would need to clear-cut several acres around the turbines in order to provide for enough space for the wind patterns to be sustained.  That would conflict the County’s comprehensive plan, which calls for protecting tree cover in rural areas.

However, Graham said the technology is changing, particularly in European countries that are rapidly developing wind power. Firms are experimenting with using different shapes to capture wind in urban environments, and also to minimize noise and wildlife issues. Graham also suggested wireless providers might also develop wind turbines as way of getting taller cell towers through co-location, though the technology for this does not currently exist.

Commissioner Tom Loach (White Hall) asked Graham if anyone had approached the County about installing a turbine. Graham said no one had yet officially sought a permit, but he was aware of a couple of interested parties in the County. He said investigating those is a very low priority for his department, but the Board had directed staff to do this preliminary investigation.

Commissioner Marcia Joseph (At-Large) said she would be interested in pursuing a way to allow for small wind turbines. Graham suggested one course of action would be to allow them as an accessory to a building, which could be regulated with a special use permit.

This wind resource map from the U.S. Department of Energy shows that Albemarle County is “wind poor”

Loach said given community opposition to cell phone towers that are only seven to ten feet taller than surrounding trees, he could not see a future for small wind turbines. Loach said residential structures are capped at 35 feet in the County, and questioned what wind turbines twice that height would look like.

Joseph said she did not want to preclude a farmer from constructing one in a field, and that she wanted staff to work on an ordinance change.  She said the country needs to be looking at other energy resources, and said she was concerned that land owners can’t currently even consider putting up a wind turbine. Chairman Calvin Morris (Rivanna) agreed that residential wind turbines should be allowed in specific cases.

Commissioner Linda Porterfield (Scottsville) was another voice against pursuing the ordinance change, given the current work load of planning staff. Instead, the County should encourage residents and businesses to invest in solar technology. Commissioner Eric Strucko (Samuel Miller) said because of Albemarle’s “wind-poor” status, other options should be explored, but said a way should be found to allow small-scale ventures. Commissioner Bill Edgerton (Jack Jouett) agreed that owners of large tracts of land should be able to experiment, given rapid changes in technology.

Commissioner Jon Cannon (Rio) said he thought the permitting process would be just as controversial as the one for cell towers, but that the County should take a deeper look. He wanted staff to find out more about the feasibility of turbines before making a commitment.

Sean Tubbs