The outlook for North Carolina becoming an East Coast trendsetter for wind farms has turned from “likely” to “unfavorable” under legislation that could become state law this month. At potential risk are two large wind farms proposed in coastal North Carolina that together would generate more than 400 megawatts of power from an estimated 150 whirling turbine towers.
The legislation, House Bill 763, prohibits the sky-scraping wind turbines from going up in military flight paths. The bill, which applies safety standards that are stricter than those typically used by the Department of Defense, passed the state Senate this week and now awaits a vote in the House.
The $300 million Timbermill Wind energy project, under development by Charlottesville, Va.-based Apex Clean Energy, is the larger of the two proposed projects at risk and also further along, having already invested millions of dollars. Timbermill Wind would erect 105 wind turbines soaring some 600 feet in height in Perquimans and Chowan counties, and the project timeline calls for the wind farm to begin generating electricity in late 2018.
The pending legislation would disqualify about half the 45 turbines Apex is planning in Chowan County, according to the company, though the bill’s effect is not known with certainty because the proposed off-limits areas have not been precisely defined. The bill eliminates roughly 20 percent of the entire project in both counties, rendering the investment unfeasible financially, according to Apex.
“This ultimately threatens the viability of our entire investment and injects a tremendous deal of uncertainty into a development process that has been underway for over four years,” Apex said in an emailed response to questions. “Though we’re still evaluating the full impact of the legislation on Timbermill Wind, we know that it will cut significantly into the Chowan County side of our project.”
North Carolina, home to major military installations, is emerging as a conflict zone over wind farms as energy developers focus their efforts here to take advantage of some of the strongest wind energy resources along the East Coast. Military officials typically work with wind farm developers to mitigate potential conflicts, but some lawmakers say they are anxious about any potential risk that could lead to a base closure or downsizing in their districts.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, a Republican from Jacksonville, re-purposed House Bill 763 by gutting the original two-page bill, which would have created a joint legislative task force on regulatory reform, and turning it into the 22-page Military Operations Protection Act of 2016. The bill makes large swaths of the state off-limits to wind farms. It is based on a map commissioned for the state Senate by the state Military Affairs Commission, an advisory panel appointed by the governor and legislators.
Brown said Wednesday the map is based on input from North Carolina’s military bases and provides certainty and clarity for where wind farms can be built.
“The intent of this bill is a common-sense effort to ensure the training and low-level flight routes around the installations aren’t compromised by tall structures, including wind turbines, that could interfere with already established training routes and patterns,” he wrote in an email. “Anything short of full support for our installations would be irresponsible in service to our State.”
Local residents also are organizing opposition to wind farms. They say they are worried about plummeting property values and health issues caused by the strobe-like effect of the shadows cast by the blades (also called shadow flicker), and low frequency sounds that some say can cause sleep disruptions and other problems.
FAA review ongoing
Wind turbines require approval from a host of local, state and federal agencies. One of those is the Federal Aviation Administration, which must issue a “No Hazard” determination for a wind turbine to be built, with consultation from the Department of Defense.
The military independently assesses the potential conflicts created by wind farms through its DOD Siting Clearinghouse, a safety review process that Apex Clean Energy has cleared on numerous occasions for other wind energy projects. Apex is now in the midst of an FAA review and DOD Siting Clearinghouse review for the Timbermill Wind project, said Apex spokesman Kevin Chandler.
The Clearinghouse’s first executive director, David Belote, who helped establish the office and oversaw its operations, subsequently joined Apex Clean Energy as an executive and is now advising Apex as a private consultant. A trained F-16 pilot, Belote is a retired Air Force colonel and former commander of Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
Belote, who helped develop wind turbine policies at the DOD Siting Clearinghouse, said the problem with the map used for HB 763 is that it indiscriminately bans wind farms whether they pose a danger or not. The map marks flight paths and flight areas of varying heights, from low-level to more than 1,000 feet, disqualifying an entire coastal stretch from Wilmington to Nags Head.
“What this map does is take every flight path and take it off limits to wind development,” Belote said.
The map Brown used to bolster his legislation is just one figure from a 66-page map atlas that took a contractor for the Military Affairs Commission nearly a year to research and compile. The maps include a disclaimer: “These maps, data, GIS (and so forth) do not, in any applicable way, allow the use for determining placement of tall structures such as wind turbines in or around” military operations routes and military training areas.
When lawmakers raised this point during Senate debate this week, Brown said the disclaimers were standard boilerplate language. The bill cleared the Senate on Monday along a largely party-line vote of 33-14. It’s been referred to a House rules committee and has not been scheduled for debate.
Property taxes at risk
Military and local officials are already assessing potential conflicts as part of a Joint Land Use Study review that will result in its own maps and comprehensive reports, to be issued by the end of this year. Tyrrell County Manager David Clegg, who is participating in the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base review, said the map used by the legislature – which designates much of Tyrrell County off-limits for wind farms – is imprecise in comparison to the maps being developed in the land use study project.
Tyrrell County is the site of the proposed Little Alligator wind farm, still in initial stages of development by British energy firm Renewable Energy Systems, or RES.
Not affected by HB 763 is the 104-turbine Amazon Wind Farm under construction by Spanish developer Iberdrola Renewables in Perquimans and Pasquotank counties. The $400 million project has already cleared all regulatory hurdles and is expected to start generating electricity later this year for the online retailer’s data centers outside of North Carolina.
Wind farms, proposed in sparsely populated rural areas with light industry, are often the top sources of property tax revenue in the counties where they are built.
Chowan County Manager Kevin Howard estimated that the Timbermill Wind project would generate between $600,000 and $800,000 a year, or about 8 percent, of the county’s tax base. Perquimans County Manager Frank Heath said the estimate could be similar in his county.
Apex recently applied to Chowan and Perquimans counties for conditional use permits. Howard said the chairman of the Chowan County Board of Commissioners, Jeff Smith, will recuse himself from the commission vote because Smith intends to host Timbermill turbines on his farm.
Apex’s voluminous filings with both counties show the company estimates that no home will be exposed to the sonic “whoosh” of the whirling turbine blades at more than 50 decibels, the volume of a normal human conversation. Each turbine will be equipped with flashing red hazard lights to warn pilots at night. The company will also post cash bonds to cover the future costs of dismantling and hauling away equipment at the end of the wind farm’s lifespan – up to $9.2 million in Chowan County and $11 million in Perquimans.
The project’s 105 turbines will span about 26.5 miles, with property owners paid yearly rent to host the turbines on their land. Apex does not disclose payment amounts but has said the total lease payments will exceed $1 million annually.
State approvals and permits are required from the Utilities Commission, Department of Environmental Quality and Wildlife Resource Commission. Federal reviews include the FAA, Army Corps of Engineers, Fish and Wildlife Service and Environmental Protection Agency.
Apex does not yet have a contract with a utility or industrial power user that would buy the output from the Timbermill wind farm.
Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, a Democrat who represents eight northeastern counties, supports the Timbermill project and worries that the supporters of HB 763 have lost a sense of proportion on the issue.
“We have essentially made it easier for fracking than for wind energy,” she said. “My biggest problem is that these are Tier One counties – economically distressed counties —and these projects are $700 million of economic development.”
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