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Power produced by Amazon wind farm won’t stay in North Carolina

Amazon’s wind energy farm in North Carolina could turn this state into a regional showcase for clean energy. But the state’s first utility-scale wind energy project won’t make a single watt of electricity for use by North Carolina’s businesses and households.

Nor will the 34-square-mile Amazon Wind Farm US East, announced Monday, replace traditional volts generated here from coal, natural gas or uranium.

Rather, the wind farm’s 104 soaring turbines will essentially operate as a private power plant, commissioned by Seattle-based Amazon to produce power exclusively for the giant online retailer’s cloud-computing data centers in Virginia and Ohio.

The power generated by whirling blades in eastern North Carolina will flow onto transmission lines and, several hundred miles downstream, Amazon will siphon off its allotment of juice. The extension cord that will carry Amazon’s electricity will be a regional power grid that coordinates electricity delivery in more than a dozen states.

“It’s a common practice in the industry, particularly in other states,” said Stephen Kalland, executive director of the N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center. “Someone is dumping renewable electrons in, and someone is taking the equivalent electrons out.”

The project, scheduled to start generating electricity in December 2016, will be built and operated by Iberdrola Renewables, the American subsidiary of the Spanish energy concern that calls itself the world’s largest wind farm developer.

Iberdrola will operate as Amazon’s personal power supplier. In the wind farm’s first year of operation Iberdrola will pay more than $1.1 million in property taxes and land leases in Pasquotank and Perquimans counties, where it will become the largest taxpayer.

Such a project could not be built to sell power within North Carolina’s borders because state law prohibits third parties from competing with electric utilities and selling power directly to customers. Instead, independent operators here can sell only to a utility, typically Duke Energy Carolinas or Duke Energy Progress, which in turn supply power to their customers.

But once the power leaves the state, the N.C. Utilities Commission has no authority to restrict direct electricity sales in states with different laws and regulations, said James McLawhorn, who heads the electric division of the Public Staff, the state agency that represents the public in utility matters before the N.C. Utilities Commission.

“It’s private money,” McLawhorn said. “The public is not on the hook.”

Technically, Amazon’s wind farm is called a merchant plant, and it’s not the only one in North Carolina.

Duke Energy Renewables is building a 52-megawatt solar farm that will ship power to George Washington University, American University and George Washington University Hospital in Washington, DC. Duke’s solar project, also in Pasquotank County, near the Virginia Border, is already generating 20 megawatts and the other 32 megawatts are expected to be online later this year.