Two proposed wind farms will pull out of eastern North Carolina if an 18-month moratorium on wind farm permits becomes state law, company officials say. Both projects had been expected to apply for state permits as early as this year and potentially could have been generating electricity by 2019.
But the moratorium means no wind farm could receive a state permit before Dec. 31, 2018. The moratorium was inserted last week into an unrelated energy bill, House Bill 589, and now awaits Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature or veto; Cooper has until July 30 to decide and is reviewing the bill, according to his office.
The moratorium was added during closed-door negotiations without public debate. Officials in the two counties where the farms were to be built are worried about the potential loss of tax revenue from the projects if they don’t go forward. The bill has also rattled wind developers because it’s just the latest attempt by lawmakers in districts with military bases to slow down wind farm development. A previous proposal in April called for a 30-mile buffer between wind farms and military installations.
The 18-month moratorium was initially brought up in the Senate as a four-year ban but scaled back as a compromise; it would require a study to identify areas of the state where wind turbines would interfere with military training. Wind farms must already receive clearance from the Department of Defense as well as the Federal Aviation Administration before they can be built.
One of the affected wind farms, the Timbermill Wind project, is proposed in Chowan County with 48 turbines up to 599 feet in height to the tip of the extended blade. Project developer Apex Clean Energy has been paying lease payments since 2013 to property owners who will host the turbines on their land when they are built.
Apex CEO Mark Goodwin, in an email statement, said the moratorium “jeopardizes hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in rural economies.”
“An 18-month delay coupled with the near certainty of additional red tape means we will almost certainly have to suspend Timbermill Wind if House Bill 589 becomes law,” the statement said.
The other project, the Little Alligator wind farm, would erect 29 turbine towers in Tyrrell County, all on land owned by timber producer Weyerhaeuser. The developer, British energy firm Renewable Energy Systems, or RES, is now reconsidering its commitment to the $200 million energy project.
The moratorium measure “has sent a strong and broad message that the State is not favorable for wind energy investment,” RES said in an emailed statement. “It raises serious questions that must be clarified about the Legislature’s long term intention, before development investments can continue.”
The turbines used in the Timbermill and Little Alligator projects would be among the tallest in the United States. Little Alligator’s blade tips could go as high as 660 feet into the sky. By comparison, the Amazon Wind Farm, operating in Pasquotank and Perquimans counties, is 492 feet tall.
Brown’s military concerns
The moratorium was added to legislation that otherwise enjoyed widespread support because it would allow North Carolina residents to lease solar panels on their rooftops rather than owning them outright, erasing a significant financial barrier for homeowners who want solar panels but can’t afford to buy them.
Rep. John Szoka, the sponsor of House Bill 589, said the benefits of his legislation for promoting solar energy and reducing energy costs outweigh any problems caused by the moratorium.
“Every bill has good things and not so good things in it,” Szoka said. “I certainly hope the Governor doesn’t veto it.”
Szoka, a retired Army lieutenant colonel from Fayetteville, has said in the past that restrictions on wind farms are ill-conceived as it is highly unlikely for the U.S. Department of Defense to allow wind farms to be built in areas where they would endanger training fighter pilots.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, the author of the moratorium, has unsuccessfully proposed previous wind farm restrictions that were rejected by lawmakers. Brown, who could not be reached for comment, has said his concerns about wind farms are based on private conversations with military officials.
Lost tax revenue
The Timbermill Wind farm would generate about $800,000 in property tax revenue for Chowan County in its first year of operation, an 8.5 percent increase in county property tax. In subsequent years the wind farm would depreciate in value and generate less property tax.
“We were in favor of it, it passed here, and we could use the money,” said Chowan County manager Kevin Howard. He said county taxes pay for public schools, public safety and recreation spending.
Tyrrell County attorney and county manager, David Clegg, said ongoing attempts by lawmakers to stymie wind farms raises questions as to whether the 18-month moratorium could be extended by the legislature. That element of uncertainty makes it difficult for energy developers to plan long-term projects and attract investment, he said.
Clegg said Tyrrell County is in need of economic development, noting that land values fell by 14 percent in the most recent reevaluation, which required a property tax increase to make up for the loss.
“I see the N.C. Department of Commerce sending out press releases saying something’s gone to Wake, something’s gone to Mecklenburg,” Clegg said. “Well, you have now taken away the ability of that press release saying something’s gone to Tyrrell.”