ELIZABETH CITY – In the next few days, the last of an array of 104 wind turbines is expected to be hooked into the electrical grid, and North Carolina’s largest wind farm – one of the biggest in the nation – will be complete.
But even as it is about to reach full power, a group of powerful North Carolina legislators are trying to shut it down.
The ten legislators have written a letter to the Trump Administration, raising concerns that the $400 million dollar project will interfere with military operations in Eastern North Carolina and Virginia.
Those concerns come despite the fact that the Pentagon approved the project before construction began. Military leaders have repeatedly said the wind farm won’t impede air traffic nor seriously affect a long-distance radar installation a few miles away over the Virginia border.
The legislators’ letter asserts that the Pentagon agreed to allow the wind farm only because it felt pressure from of the pro-renewables political correctness of the Obama administration. It also notes that the note that the parent company of the wind farm’s developer, Avangrid Renewables, is Spanish, so “no tears need to be shed” for it if the project is closed.
“Two of the four counties that I serve have military installations there,” said House Majority Leader John Bell, a Wayne County Republican, who was among those who signed the letter.
“When you’re putting foreign-funded wind turbines into areas that it’s very obvious that they’re going to interfere with military training, which could result in bases being closed, to me, it caused an alarm,” Bell said in an interview.
The wind farm is generating power that will indirectly be used to power data centers for the online retail giant Amazon.com in Virginia.
It was built mainly on the soggy soil of a desolate area north of Elizabeth City that locals call The Desert.
Landing it was a huge economic development coup, the kind rarely even dreamed of in the Northeastern corner of the state, which has some of North Carolina’s poorest counties.
So the legislators’ letter startled local officials in the two counties that are home to the project, Perquimans and Pasquotank. The wind farm is the largest taxpayer for both and has put millions of dollars in the local government’s coffers and in the pockets of landowners who are leasing sites for the turbines.
“The fact that we are the first utility scale wind projection the Southwest is sort of a point of community pride,” said Wayne Harris, the economic development director for Elizabeth City and Pasquotank County.
The wind farm, with the cachet of the Amazon brand and the cutting-edge aura of a major green energy project, has changed the region’s image, Harris said. It has generated calls from developers of other kinds of projects, and even from tourists who want to come and see the nearly 500-foot-tall turbines.
That’s adding to what he says is momentum for the region from other new businesses, restoration projects, and a planned bridge that could make Elizabeth City an easy day trip for the millions of tourists who visit the Outer Banks.
But what if the wind farm is shut down?
“I think there would be a sense of disappointment and despair, really,” Harris said. “That would change that from a positive marker to being the town where a $400 million capital investment was nullified.”
Rep, Bell said he’s not against wind power and he understands the economic development interest in building wind farms, but he said the state’s military bases are far more important to the economy and to national security. Fort Bragg, Camp Lejeune, and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base contribute tens of billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs to Eastern North Carolina.
Bell said that if the wind turbines harmed the ability of Seymour Johnson pilots to train, the government might shut the base in one of its periodic rounds of base closings.
“You’re talking over a $600 million economic impact and over 12,000 dependents in the area… gone,” Bell said. “That means retail, restaurants, housing – everything that our community is built around. That’s how big a deal it is.”
Bell said he has no doubt that political correctness on the part of the Obama administration influenced the Department of Defense decision to sign off on the wind project.
“One of the concerns I’ve had is under the last administration, they were very pro clean energy, pro renewable energy and really were trying to do what they could to downsize the military.”
One legislator who didn’t sign the letter – even though the wind farm is in his district – was Rep. Bob Steinburg, a Chowan County Republican.
Steinburg said he didn’t even know about the letter until reports appeared in the media. Wind energy opponents, he said, had become frustrated that repeated efforts in the legislature to stop wind farms had failed. He said the letter was a secretive end run around the proper legislative process.
“Ever since I took office in 2013, there have been repeated attempts, through one vehicle or another, to stop renewable energy in North Carolina,” he said.
“It has been relentless.”
He said that he believes that Bell and Sen. Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican who also signed the letter, are honestly trying to look out for the military. Both represent military bases and are obviously aware of the military’s huge economic impact.
But other legislators, Steinburg said, oppose renewable energy for ideological reasons. He said if the wind farm is shut down without just cause, other businesses would be leery of moving into the state.
Steinburg said there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the military’s decision to approve the wind farm. The radar is just the latest excuse of many that renewable energy opponents in the legislature have tried, he said.
“I take the position of trying to find a way where we can work with the military to accommodate economic investment in our region, as well as to ensure the military does not feel they can’t operate safely and effectively,” he said. “There is a solution, there is no question about that. But some people aren’t interested in finding a compromise.”
The question both sides are left with is whether the military will change its stance on the wind farm now that President Trump – who has been a vocal critic of wind turbines – is in charge.
So far, it hasn’t. In response to a request for an interview a week after Trump took office, a Navy spokesman reissued a previous email statement saying that the Navy doesn’t believe the wind farm will harm the radar’s effectiveness.
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