LUMBER BRIDGE – A 196-foot tower will soon loom over a cotton field in southern Hoke County to determine whether the area is windy enough to generate power.
The meteorological tower will take its place among farms and trees, with residences and an occasional business here and there.
Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources is building the tower near Lumber Bridge. Equipment at various heights will measure wind speeds for up to five years.
The Hoke County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a conditional use permit Sept. 2 that will let the company build the tower on a 52-acre tract off N.C. 20 near the Robeson County line.
Wind farms create electricity when turbine blades turn and spin shafts connected to generators. One expert on wind farms says producing energy from the wind is cheaper than most other forms of generating power.
Donald L. Porter, executive director of Raeford-Hoke Economic Development, said local officials are hopeful that the area will have enough wind to make the project viable. News of a potential wind farm has been well received by landowners in the area, he said.
John Balfour’s family owns the land where NextEra will build the tower, which will look similar to a cell tower and will be mostly hidden behind trees. He said he doesn’t have a problem with wind energy.
“I don’t see a downside,” he said.
Steven Stengel, a spokesman for NextEra, said the company decided to consider the area after analyzing publicly available information about wind speeds from airports and other sources.
“We’re always looking for opportunities to expand our portfolio if it makes sense economically,” he said. “We look around the country for places it might make sense to build a wind project.”
NextEra, a power generating company, is the largest owner and operator of wind power plants in the country, Stengel said. The company also has solar, nuclear and natural gas plants, he said.
Officials say it’s too soon to say how big the wind farm might be in Hoke County.
For now, Stengel said, the company wants to get current information about wind in the area.
“You want to put your own instrumentation up to get your own data,” he said.
A date hasn’t been set for building the tower, he said.
It’s unclear whether Hoke County would be an optimal location for a wind farm.
Dennis Scanlin, professor in the Department of Technology and Environmental Design at Appalachian State University, said the school has produced a high resolution wind map of the state.
“The wind speed is going to tell you how much energy you can produce,” he said.
The map, which is based on a sophisticated computer program, shows that Hoke County, near the Robeson County line, has an average annual wind speed of about 14 mph at a height of about 330 feet, Scanlin said.
“That would be adequate for electricity production, but wouldn’t be the best of sites,” he said.
The map has been shown to be accurate based on data collected at several sites, he said.
Still, he said, “it could be a viable project.”
North Carolina does not have any wind farms now, but several projects are in the works or are being considered.
The state ranks among the top 10 in wind power capacity and has ample wind resources in the mountain and coastal regions to generate a large percentage of the state’s total electricity, according to the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association website.
The North Carolina mountains and coast have higher wind levels, Scanlin said.
Jen Banks, director of operations for the Southeastern Coastal Wind Coalition, said eight to 12 different wind companies have put up towers to measure wind in North Carolina over the past 10 years. Some are still collecting data, she said.
A project called Desert Wind in Pasquotank and Perquimans counties near the coast has received state approval and local permits, Banks said. The wind farm would include 150 turbines and generate enough power for 55,000 to 70,000 homes, she said.
Iberdrola Renewables, a Spanish company, has to get an agreement from a power company to purchase the electricity before it starts construction.
A better windmill
Technological advances in the past several years have made wind farms more viable in places that previously would not have been considered, Banks said. Wind turbines that are taller with longer blades produce more energy, she said.
“It lights up a whole lot more of North Carolina and the Southeast into what is considered viable,” she said. “The prospect of having land-based wind projects in North Carolina is really good.”
Scanlin, who has been studying alternative forms of energy for about 35 years, said a company weighing the possibility of a wind farm would consider factors such as the cost of leasing the land, permit issues and available incentives.
“It’s a more complex process than just measuring the wind,” he said.
Stengel said the company also looks at issues such as the ability to transmit the power, a customer to buy the power and whether landowners are willing to host wind turbines on their property.
Scanlin said producing energy from the wind is less expensive than most other forms of generating power.
“Wind turbines work well,” he said. “It’s a mature technology.”
Stengel said there are no emissions from generating power from the wind.
No water is needed, and most of the land can still be used for farming or grazing, Stengel said.
“You can virtually farm up to the base of a wind turbine,” he said.
Balfour, the property owner, said the area around the tower will continue to be a cotton field.
“It’s not going to hamper the use of it, except for a small footprint,” he said.
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