Even as the first spades were driven into the earth for the state’s first commercial-scale wind turbine farm, questions remain about how the project was approved without the state permits required by law for wind generation facilities.
Gov. Pat McCrory attended a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday for the Amazon Wind Farm US East in Northeast North Carolina.
The facility, which will be located in Perquimans and Pasquotank counties, will serve to power an Amazon Web Services data center.
Iberdrola Renewables, a subsidiary of a Spanish company, is taking on the project for Amazon to build more than 100 wind turbines on 22,000 acres across the two counties.
The wind turbines Iberdrola intends to utilize for this project stand 492 feet high, from base to blade tip.
McCrory held the project up as part of his overall plan to increase renewables in the state.
“The Amazon wind farm is a significant step toward diversifying North Carolina’s energy resources,” McCrory said. “Bringing onshore wind production to North Carolina is part of my ‘all of the above’ energy strategy. By diversifying our energy resources, we can provide affordable, reliable, and secure sources of energy that are environmentally clean and safe.”
Laws mandate state permits
But why did a state agency say the facility needed a North Carolina permits, then soon after reverse itself?
Effective May 17, 2013, under North Carolina General Statute 143-215.115, no wind energy facility may be constructed or expanded without prior state approval.
The only exceptions are for facilities approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prior to the enactment of the law.
The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR)originally told officials at Iberdrola that the company would need to go through the state permitting process – but came to the opposite conclusion a month later.
In a letter sent March 18, 2015, DENR Energy Section Chief Brad Atkinson informed Craig Poff, Iberdrola’s director of business development, that, for the then-named Desert Wind Project (now the Amazon Wind Farm US East), the company would need to go through the state permitting process.
The letter said, “Based on the information you provided and the provisions of the Act, DENR has determined that Iberdrola’s Desert Winds Project is subject to the State’s wind energy facility permitting process.”
Under state law, any facility that had not received the FAA “Determination of No Hazard to Air Navigation” checkoff before the May 17, 2013 deadline is subject to the state permitting process.
While the Iberdrola project was approved by the FAA June 29, 2011, this was before an expansion to the project, as defined in state law,
An expansion includes a wide array of changes to the project, including increasing wind turbine height or increasing the footprint of the wind energy facility beyond what was initially approved.
State law requires any expansion to be approved by DENR.
A subsequent letter, sent to Poff by Atkinson April 29, overturned the original decision.
The subsequent letter said, “DENR has renewed its review of the Act and has determined that Iberdrola’s Desert Wind Project is not subject to permitting provisions of the Act based on a plain reading of the Act. This is true because the FAA issued determinations to Iberdrola, for its Desert Wind Project, on June 29, 2011, prior to the Act becoming law, despite the fact that these FAA issued determinations subsequently expired on May 21, 2014.”
The letter went on to say, “Likewise, the fact that individual turbines within the Desert Wind Project have both increased in height and changed coordinate locations from Iberdrola’s June 2011 FAA issued determinations does not implicate the permitting provisions of the Act.”
Atkinson also said that DENR strongly advises Iberdrola to keep federal, state and local governments, as well as local military leaders abreast of any further changes to the project.
Had Iberdrola been forced to go through the state permitting process, there would be multiple required site visits, public hearings and ongoing reporting, as well as requirements relating to decommissioning the turbines.
DENR would also have responsibilities to do an annual review of military presence in the area as well as other record-keeping.
Attempts to contact Atkinson were not successful as of press time.
Amazon funds wind farm to increase company sustainability
Amazon is developing a network of renewable energy facilities in an effort to achieve company-wide sustainability.
The online retail giant will also be utilizing Tesla batteries to store the energy, since storage has been a consistent problem with renewables such as wind and solar, which cannot be reliably fueled like coal, natural gas or nuclear-fired power plants.
Tesla has endeavored to make batteries available to keep excess energy generated by renewable power generation users to reduce dependency on the power grid as a whole.
The power generated at Amazon Wind Farm US East will be delivered to the grid that supplies the Amazon Web Services data center.
Jerry Hunter, vice president of Infrastructure at Amazon Web Services. said, “This agreement, and those previously in place, puts AWS on track to surpass our goal of 40 percent renewable energy globally by the end of 2016.”
The North Carolina wind farm is expected to generate 208 megawatts (MW) in the first phase, with an ultimate capacity of 300 MW from 150 turbines.
Amazon has also planned wind turbine facilities in Indiana and Virginia.