Armed with hard hats, cranes and elaborate pulley systems, crews at the Amazon wind farm near Elizabeth City are hoisting massive cylinders into the sky.
On one side stands corn farmers, such as 67-year-old Horace Pritchard, who is set to profit from the wind farm. On the other stands landowners such as Jillanne Gigi Badawi, who claims she had 900 individuals who have signed a petition decrying the project.
Badawi’s property is less than one mile from a planned turbine, but she has never visited the site. And yet, she says, “I’m fine with it if it’s in a desert somewhere, not near people and not near birds.”
While it’s likely too late for Badawi – conditional-use permits have long been approved and an attempt to squash them in court went against her in June – it may not be too late for her cohorts who, even now, are protesting similar projects trying to gain footing in the eastern part of the state.
Over the past few weeks, legislators introduced a bill that proponents say could halt the industry in the state – even before wind hits the first propeller.
In 2009, when Pritchard first started talking with Iberdrola, the Spanish wind farm giant building the project, corn was $5 to $6 per bushel, he says. Today, it’s below $4. “And it’s been down below $3,” Pritchard says.
So when Iberdrola’s director of business development, Craig Poff, said he could provide a steady stream of supplemental income by leasing farmland for turbines, “I didn’t hesitate, I said let’s talk,” Pritchard says. As did about 59 of his fellow farmers who, according to the lease deal, will be paid about $5,000 annually for each turbine Iberdrola builds on their land. Pritchard, a fourth-generation farmer, controls more than 1,000 of those acres. But to his neighbor, Badawi, who bought her house in 2012, all this was done hastily and without community input. “I’m a process person,” she says. “There’s no process here.”
Badawi, however, lost an argument in court just days ago, possibly extinguishing any chance of putting a halt to the project.
To many, the Amazon project may have been perceived as not being feasible, especially given its scope, size and duration.
Delay at the start
Teresa Hurdle lives one house closer to the farm, and says she heard about the project from a neighbor. That was in 2011, around the time public hearings happened – and around the time a conditional-use permit was granted. Economic developers, backed up by public documents, say they weren’t receiving much pushback from citizens over the project back then. By the time the opposition emerged, it was too late, as the conditional-use permit had not only been granted, but also extended.
Once a developer receives a conditional-use permit, it’s pretty much at their discretion as to when they begin work, explains Pasquotank planning director Shelley Cox.
But it was that delay – from the permit in 2011 to the groundbreaking in 2015 – that had landowners thinking the project had fizzled. “Nothing was happening … then all of a sudden it’s ramping up again?” Badawi says.
Several factors accounted for the delay.
Iberdrola’s Poff, who first brought the idea to Pasquotank planning officials in 2009, says drops in natural gas prices delayed the project, but the biggest factor was locating a buyer. Along with finding land and a way to transmit the power (the site is next to two substations), finding a customer is a top concern. So, while Hurdle and other landowners say they were living their lives, 48-year-old Poff and his team were reaching out to utility players. And commissioners – with little pushback (a landowner expressed concerns about rattlesnakes during a public hearing about the project) – were extending the deadline for Iberdrola to break ground. The vitriol that’s arisen over the last few months was absent from those early public meetings, records show.
“There were a lot of questions,” Wayne Harris, director of economic development for Pasquotank, recalls. “We had never done anything like this before in this area.”
But that’s all they were, he insists, just questions: Questions about noise, questions about shadow flicker (the shadow created by turbine blades rotating in front of sunlight) and questions about what would happen if Iberdrola decided to pull out of the project when the lease expires.
To mitigate the last issue, commissioners required Iberdrola to secure a $1 million bond, to be evaluated every five years to ensure they’ll be able to remove the turbines after the lease term ends.
Selling clean energy
Poff, who says a fishing trip tipped him off to eastern North Carolina’s wind potential, thought the questions had been answered. Poff is in charge of a wide swath of area for Iberdrola, from Pennsylvania through the Southeast, and says he’s constantly evaluating the next opportunity. But he’s never met with pushback like this before.
Talk to Poff long enough and one gets a sense that the internal squabble among neighbors is foreign to him. But he continues to stay on message: “Look at what we’re doing compared to coal plants,” he pans.
And from an environmental standpoint, that may be true. Wind turbines don’t produce atmospheric emissions that cause greenhouse gases. In North Carolina alone, coal produced 46.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2013, according to a 2015 report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Other residents were concerned about aviation support. In addition to crop-dusters spraying cornfields, forest fires have brought aviation support to the region over the past few years, the North Carolina Forest Service confirms.
Both the turbines and the METs, or meteorological evaluation towers, can be flight hazards, confirms Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ken Degg. And Brian Haines, spokesman for the North Carolina Forest Service, says turbines limit his department’s use of planes and helicopters for fire response. “It will be our job to make sure all concerns for wildfire protection in and around these areas are identified and addressed,” Haines says, adding that it’s no different than with other tall structures.
But there’s one concern about turbines that developers haven’t been able to shake – fear that the structures could interfere with military training flight paths.
While a new bill, even with its title, “Military Operations Protection Act of 2016,” purports to be about protecting the state’s military footprint, it does include requirements aimed at civilians, such as a passage that would have developers study noise and shadow flicker impact, as well as to notify surrounding property owners.
One of its biggest proponents is Sen. Harry Brown (R; Jones, Onslow), who helped rewrite a two-page House Bill into the 22-page legislation. He says that while the Department of Defense already reviews developers’ plans to determine compatibility with requirements at installations, “they don’t evaluate the likelihood that the project may result in an eventual decision by a BRAC (Base Closure and Realignment Commission) board that a mission set is better served at an installation outside (North Carolina) due to encroachment or private development projects.”
“Federal agencies are not charged with putting the strategic economic needs of North Carolina first – that is the job of the N.C. General Assembly,” Brown adds.
Brown says the intent of turbine restrictions in the bill is 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.
Maggie Clark, director of government affairs for Raleigh-based advocacy group North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, says it’s an unnecessary bill, as many of the military concerns are addressed in other legislation. She points to existing requirements that require base commanders and major military installations to be consulted on projects, as well as a U.S. Department of Defense permitting process that she calls “very strict.”
She calls the provisions in the bill “confusing” and “unnecessary” and predicts that, if they become law, the legislation will likely lead to lawsuits.
“(The bill) adds layers of red tape and procedure that will discourage developers from engaging in business in North Carolina,” she says. “This bill could bring great harm to some of the state’s poorest counties that are seeing hundreds of millions of dollars in wind investment.”
And it’s not just the direct investment from Iberdrola. About 250 construction jobs are already boosting Pasquotank and Perquimans counties. While at least half come from outside of the area according to Poff, they’re providing what Harris calls a “big burst” of revenue.
Since construction began last year, room tax revenues have risen 30 percent year-over-year in Pasquotank as construction workers fill hotel rooms surrounding the site. And local retail numbers are outperforming national trends. Since Elizabeth City, unlike other coastal towns, doesn’t really have a tourism economy, he credits it all to the Amazon project. In addition, landowner payments and taxes for the first phase of the project are expected to inject $1.1 million into the local economy each year (including more than $500,000 in tax revenue), according to a release from by the state.
While that “burst” is just during the construction of the turbines (only 10 positions will work full-time at the site in the next few years), there are two big, long-term benefits. The one most important to Pritchard is the more than 60 miles of roads Iberdrola has built and is committed to maintaining for the next 25 years.
Previously, one of the timber paths winding through his cornfields was referred to as “Slick Road,” impassable in inclement weather. An estimate that he and other farmers put together for stabilizing just a few of the timber pathways with rock came out to about $5 million. “We can’t afford that, no way,” he says.
Poff says he’s eyeing additional locations across the Southeast.
And economic developers say they’ve heard from officials in other parts of the country that are curious about the process.
For Iberdrola, it’s also a big deal – and not just in terms of the revenue gleaned from selling hundreds of megawatts of power to Amazon.
It’s the first time Iberdrola has sold power in this way, as it typically deals with utility companies as customers. If it’s successful, it could open up an entirely new revenue stream for Iberdrola. Poff says the addition of the Amazon name has added a lot of acclaim to the project – an added boost in what’s becoming a unique public relations campaign.
Jonathan Naughton, director of the University of Wyoming’s Wind Energy Research Center, says Amazon is following in the footsteps of companies such as Google, which also buys power from wind farms.
“It’s a totally new buyer,” he says. “The idea of a company purchasing power directly is new… These very data-intensive companies that have a large electric footprint do not want to be known as having a large CO2 footprint … So they’re being very active.”
And that means opportunity for North Carolina – but only if the state is willing to take it. While the bill currently cyling in Raleigh won’t impact the Amazon project, the bill could stop equally bullish plans to the south.
An Apex Clean Energy project dubbed Timbermill Wind could straddle parts of Perquimans and Chowan counties – parts that would come into conflict with the boundaries of the bill. Frank Heath, the Perquimans county manager who has been working with the developer on the project, says the bill “would certainly make it more difficult to develop projects.”
And that sits just fine with the 46-year-old Badawi who says,
“There’s nothing they could do to change my mind,” she says. “None of this is right.”
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