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Wind energy moratorium reduced to 18 months in compromise bill

A proposed ban on wind energy projects for four years has been reduced to an 18-month moratorium under a compromise renewable energy bill that passed the House and Senate early Friday morning.

The Senate had tacked the four-year ban onto a lengthy renewable energy bill that was developed in the House. Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Jacksonville, argues the ban is needed to provide time to ensure wind towers don’t interfere with military flight training. But opponents of the ban fear it could kill two proposed wind facilities in northeastern North Carolina.

The compromise on the 18-month ban was announced around 1 a.m. Friday as the legislature wrapped up its session, following lengthy negotiations between the two chambers. If Gov. Roy Cooper signs the bill – or if he vetoes and it’s overridden – the ban will be in effect until Dec. 31, 2018. The bill also calls for a study of wind impacts on military operations, with a deadline of May 31, 2018, to issue findings and recommendations.

The compromise bill passed the Senate in a 36-4 vote and passed the House a few minutes later in a 66-41 vote.

Supporters of the compromise said the wind projects could continue planning work during the moratorium. “It does not mean that a wind facility cannot submit all their paperwork to (the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality), and it doesn’t mean that DEQ cannot work on that paperwork,” said Rep. John Szoka, a Fayetteville Republican. “It takes many years for a wind facility to be licensed.”

But others worried the companies working to build wind facilities could move to states that are more friendly toward the industry. “I think this wind moratorium is a deal killer,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat. “I’m told that one of the two companies looking in northeastern North Carolina is going to pull out if this moratorium occurs.”

Szoka said the final bill isn’t perfect, but he urged legislators to support the measure because of the original House provisions on renewable energy, which he said would reduce electricity costs.

“It’s better to have 85 percent of something that is to the benefit of ratepayers than have 100 percent of nothing,” he said.

The bill would let residents lease solar panels on their rooftops rather than owning them outright, a financing arrangement popular in other states that could make the projects more affordable.

The legislation includes a number of provisions, including an agreement to resolve simmering conflicts over the location of utility-scale solar farms, and reducing the amount Duke Energy would pay industrial solar farms for electricity.

And for the first time, electric utilities would be required to let state residents participate in a program called community solar. The program lets residents purchase stakes in solar farms not located on their property, getting credit for the power their share generates, just as if the solar panels were bolted to their roof.

Gov. Roy Cooper endorsed the original bill, but it’s unclear if he’ll support the new version with the wind moratorium.

Staff writer John Murawski contributed to this report