In 2017, solar and wind power facilities faced storm clouds and headwinds in northeastern North Carolina, where residents and elected officials alike opposed their rapid growth.
Moratoriums, permit denials and stricter zoning rules were among the many obstacles solar and wind developers faced throughout the year.
The treatment stood in stark contrast to just a few years ago, when those same developers were winning local approval of their solar and wind projects, primarily with their promises of multi-million-dollar investments and major property taxes benefits for counties and rent payments to local landowners. Elected officials also believed in the promise of solar and wind projects – that they were supporting clean energies touted as vital, even inevitable alternatives to fossil fuels
The shift in attitude came about as some of the promises about renewable energy came up against the realities about the projects many local residents object to, including how the projects change the landscape and, some allege, cause economic, environmental and other harm.
The solar industry entered the year with a shot across the bow from Currituck officials. Commissioners in January approved a 60-day moratorium on approval of any future solar farm projects. A month later, the moratorium became a flat-out ban..
The ban doesn’t affect two solar farms already operating in Currituck, both near Moyock and the largest of which is operated by SunEnergy1. Residents complained about noise and dust from construction of SunEnergy1’s Summit Farms facility. They also complained that the solar farm off N.C. Highway 34, operated by Duke Energy, is unsightly.
Board of Commissioners Chairman Bobby Hanig criticized Duke’s farm this month as something that “takes away from what Currituck is.”
SunEnergy1 CEO Kenny Habul has defended his Currituck facility and the solar industry – rejecting claims that construction crews worked through the night and arguing the company has established an adequate berm to block panels from view.
Other county residents have also come to solar’s defense. During an open house to celebrate SunEnergy1’s solar farm when it opened in April, many welcomed the solar farm to the county. Even county commissioners who opposed the project said they looked forward to more tax revenue and felt obligated to support a business now in Currituck.
Currituck’s change of attitude about solar farm projects seemed to spread to neighboring counties.
Camden, Perquimans, and Chowan officials all imposed several-month-long moratoriums on solar projects in their counties. Those moratoriums didn’t always halt solar development though, as Perquimans commissioners voted 4-2 in May to allow the scaled-down White Family Sun Farm to move forward, despite the county’s ongoing moratorium.
As for Pasquotank, home to two 20-megawatt and one five-megawatt solar farms, commissioners spent much of 2017 working with staff on new solar restrictions. Commissioners considered imposing a moratorium until they set new zoning restrictions, but ultimately decided against it.
Pasquotank did approve new restrictions on solar projects in October, including one requiring larger setbacks from residential properties. Other requirements make vegetative buffers mandatory and force solar farm developers to post larger bonds to cover eventual decommissioning costs. Solar developers opposed the changes as unnecessary and likely to deter investment.
Counties are also trying to raise costs on solar farm developers in other ways.
Pasquotank officials joined their counterparts in Chowan and Currituck this summer in opposing an 80-percent property tax exclusion that solar developers receive under state law. State Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, agreed with the counties, arguing they deserve the full property tax benefit for hosting solar farms.
Not all local lawmakers agreed with ending the property tax exclusion, however. State House Reps. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, and Howard Hunter, D-Hertford, warned that a full repeal of the tax credit could mean no solar investment at all in northeastern North Carolina.
Despite efforts to stymie solar power, state lawmakers did deliver a major boon to solar companies this summer. Gov. Roy Cooper signed House Bill 589, legislation that, among other provisions, provides for a bidding process under which Duke Energy has said it will bring 2.6 gigawatts of new solar power to North Carolina in the next three years.
Ironically, that bill also dealt a blow to the wind industry. H589 established an 18-month moratorium on wind projects that will expire on Dec. 31, 2018. The controversial provision was inserted late in the General Assembly’s debate over what lawmakers saw as a must-pass bill. State Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, reportedly inserted the provision after failing to get a standalone moratorium passed.
The provision’s stated purpose is to require a study of military operations in North Carolina and how wind projects could hinder them. Cook strongly supported the provision, arguing that military operations must take precedence over wind development. Apart from national security concerns, he noted the military is by far a larger contributor to the state economy.
Renewable energy advocates, including Steinburg, Hunter and Sen. Erica Smith, D-Northampton, all disagreed, arguing the military has effective, thorough means to vet wind farms near its facilities.
The moratorium doesn’t affect the Amazon wind farm, since it’s already operational in Pasquotank and Perquimans counties. It may threaten other wind projects though.
Apex Clean Energy warned in July that its 105-turbine wind farm in Perquimans and Chowan would be suspended if H589 became law. Perquimans commissioners have also rejected a permit for turbines in their county, further hindering the project.
While there’s a moratorium on new land-based wind power projects in North Carolina, the federal government has executed a lease to move forward with planning for a 122,000-acre wind project in the Atlantic Ocean off Kitty Hawk.
In March, Avangrid Renewables, the same developer of the Amazon Wind Farm US East project, bid $9 million for the rights to develop the site off Kitty Hawk. In October, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Management, made the deal final. That means Avangrid can start performing offshore wind studies.
Avangrid’s offshore lease area begins about 24 nautical miles from shore and extends 25 nautical miles southeast. Its seaward extent ranges from 13.5 nautical miles in the north to .6 of a nautical mile in the south.