Last weekend, the skyline in Pasquotank County changed dramatically when builders hoisted a nearly 500 foot wind turbine in a corn field. More than 100 just like it, part of the Amazon Wind Farm U.S. East project, will make up the first wind energy farm in the state.
The company building and maintaining the facility, Avantgrid Renewables, bought 22,000 acres of land, hired 250 people for construction jobs and is expected to hire 10-15 people for long-term, permanent positions.
But some lawmakers in eastern North Carolina still aren’t sold on the concept, citing health and safety concerns, especially for military pilots. They failed to pass legislation on the matter in the General Assembly this year, but eight legislators vowed to continue the fight in 2017.
Chris Thomas has this.
There’s a desert in North Carolina – not too far away from the shore.
Just ask Wayne Harris – director of the Pasquotank County Economic Development Commission.
“This area is called ‘The Desert’ because there are no trees, but it’s a massive farming area and it straddles the Pasquotank-Perquimans County border.”
“The Desert” hugging the Outer Banks is bustling with activity. Ground broke on Amazon Wind Farm U.S. East – known as “Project Amazon” last year and construction is set to end later this year.
[:19] “When you look strictly at the amount of taxes paid to Pasquotank County, nobody comes even very close to the…$270 million that…Avantgrid will be paying to the county.”
Additionally, Avantgrid will be paying more than 60 land owners $6,000 per year for every turbine built and raised – 104 by the end of the year, according to a company spokesperson.
Those turbines are expected to generate 208 megawatts, enough to power about 60,000 homes. The energy, though, isn’t staying in northeastern North Carolina.
Paul Copleman is a representative for Avantgrid Renewables.
“The energy generated from this project is going to be delivered into the electrical grid that supplies both current and future Amazon Web Services (and) cloud data centers.”
Still, it’s a prime spot for a wind farm, Melissa Dickerson believes. She’s an Outer Banks native and serves as the North Carolina Sierra Club’s Coastal Coordinator.
“Of course, with our neighbor as the ocean… (In) Pasquotank and Perquimans Counties, we do have a great resource of wind. That has been studied diligently.”
But if a group of eastern legislators have their way, it may be a one-of-a-kind operation. Two separate bills on wind energy regulation were introduced in the General Assembly during this year’s short session.
The longer, more comprehensive bill was HB 763 – also known as the “Military Operations Protections Act of 2016.” It was mainly written by a Senator, Harry Brown of Jacksonville.
The other proposal, SB 843, addresses wind and solar energy facilities, amending and expanding upon preexisting regulations. That was titled “Renewable Energy Property Protection.”
“What we’re looking for, just like any business, is a fair, predictable treatment of your business. And so, the rules have changed on us a little bit in the State of North Carolina and so we have to look at those factors carefully when we’re looking where to invest. Again, that’s just like any business looking to set up shop.”
Both bills stalled in committee before the end of the short session July 1st, but Senator Brown, six fellow Republicans, and a Democrat – all from districts with military bases – issued a joint statement saying the fight will continue next year, when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.
Senator Brown was not available for comment.
Chapter lead organizer of the NC Sierra Club, Zak Keith, says renewable energy has been a tough sell in North Carolina recently – even after a bipartisan, private-public effort to create a future vision for clean energy in North Carolina under the last administration.
“What we’ve seen over the last 4 years, every session, there have been either attacks on the solar industry. In this past session, we’ve seen attacks on the wind industry. So, it has become something that has become more split along party lines unfortunately.”
Both bills address health and property concerns sometimes related to wind farms. Numerous reports and studies supporting and debunking both claims have been published for decades.
Its primary concern lies in the military, specifically its pilots.
Three Onslow County legislators, including Senator Brown, supported the statement. Among them was Representative Phil Shepard, an Onslow County native.
We spoke to Mr. Shepard on his cell phone.
“Well I think, from the standpoint of the coastal legislators, especially those with military bases, we don’t want to do anything that will disrupt our military from being able to train.”
Were HB 763 signed into law, it would have prohibited wind energy facilities in five zones identified by the North Carolina Military Affairs Commission as “low level flight compatibility” areas.
That covers large swaths of land throughout the state and virtually blankets eastern North Carolina.
“We’re a military friendly state and if we do anything to disrupt to go out there and train…then we’re putting ourselves in jeopardy of losing those military installations because they’ll (want to) go somewhere where we don’t put any road blocks there in front of them to keep them from being able to train properly and do what the things they need to do.”
Mr. Shepard said his support for the initiative was for the sake of his constituents – many of whom are current or former members of the military and their dependents. In Onslow County, 22 percent of the civilian population alone are veterans, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates from 2014.
“Not only does the Marine Corps Base on Camp Lejeune vital to Onslow County and Jacksonville and the surrounding areas, but it’s very vital to several counties outside of Onslow County – Duplin, Pender Jones.”
Some believe the bill unfairly pitted the military against civilians – especially since the federal and state government have wind energy regulations already in place.
NC Sierra Club’s Melissa Dickerson.
“And the military itself has a process that works to site first, to mitigate the siting of these windmills so there isn’t the interference. This bill just goes too far.”
For his part, Mr. Shepard said he’ll need to do more research on those topics. He hopes to find middle ground with wind energy developers and advocates.
“I’m willing to sit down with anybody. And as long as they’re reasonable and we feel like we can reach a compromise, and we both can gain something from the process that would be good for that industry and good for our military industry that has been good to the state of North Carolina for the last 50-60 years, then I’m okay with that.”
Middle ground may be hard to find for these two sides.
Seven of the eight legislators who signed the statement on wind energy regulation voted to lift a ban on hydraulic fracking in 2014. Furthermore, businesses and political action committees related to the electric, gas, and oil industries are among Senator Brown’s top campaign contributors – including the Duke Energy Corporation and Koch Industries.
Still few, sustainable, jobs are created through the wind industry and it’s a relatively unknown quantity in the region. In comparison, the federal government, by way of the military, provides billions of dollars and thousands of job opportunities for civilians and recruits.
Back in Pasquotank County, the Amazon project continues. But as far as future projects are concerned? It depends on where the wind blows in Raleigh.
I’m Chris Thomas.
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