RALEIGH, N.C. — Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday signed into law a measure that overhauls the state's solar energy policy, despite an 18-month moratorium on new wind farm projects that lawmakers tacked onto the plan.
"A strong renewable energy industry is good for our environment and our economy," Cooper said in a statement. "This bill is critical for the future of significant increases in our already booming solar industry. I strongly oppose the ugly, last-minute, politically motivated wind moratorium. However, this fragile and hard fought solar deal will be lost if I veto this legislation and that veto is sustained."
The governor said he signed an executive order directing the state Department of Environmental Quality to work with wind energy firms on reviewing permits for proposed projects and checking on prospective sites so projects would be part of the way through the approvals process when the moratorium expires at the end of 2018.
The new law allows third-party leasing of solar arrays for rooftops and community projects, reinstates the "green source rider" that lets large energy customers tell utilities how much of their power they want to get from renewable sources, opens competitive bidding for solar and other capacity to bring prices down and doesn't change the state's renewable energy portfolio standard, which dictates that state utilities should be getting 12.5 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2021.
The changes were hashed out over nine months by various industry and environmental groups, but the package almost unraveled in the waning days of the legislative session when Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown added the wind farm moratorium.
Brown, R-Onslow, insists the holding pattern is needed so a consultant can complete maps showing where wind farms might conflict with military training operations. Military officials, who must sign off on all wind farm projects, said no pending projects in North Carolina would interfere with training.
"Regardless of Gov. Cooper’s incorrect assumptions about why I support this bill, I am grateful he signed it, which will ensure North Carolina’s military installations are fully protected while still allowing proposed new wind facilities to move forward on a prudent timeline," Brown said in a statement. "It is encouraging the governor did not ignore feedback from military advisers and risk North Carolina’s second-largest industry and the hundreds of thousands of good jobs it supports."
The moratorium means DEQ can't issue a final permit, but it doesn't stop the rest of the six- to nine-month approval process put into law by lawmakers in 2013. That process remains untested, says Bob Leker, who helped devise guidelines for wind developers as a renewable energy program manager with DEQ.
The only wind farm built in North Carolina was exempt from the permitting process after it was grandfathered into the 2013 law. But developers for that project – Amazon wind near Elizabeth City – still had to earn approvals from the U.S. Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal and local agencies.
The new law will create more uncertainty for wind developers, Leker said, which have to jump through many more hoops than other types of renewable energy projects, such as solar farms.
"There's a lot at risk for a wind project," Leker, who retired in July 2016 from DEQ, said. "It's a much longer process, and there's more money at stake."
The Amazon turbines began operating last fall, and Leker said the company has become the biggest taxpayer in Pasquotank and Perquimans counties.
"The positives for us in Pasquotank County have really been enormous," Wayne Harris, director of the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank County Economic Development Commission, said.
The Amazon wind farm brings in $270,000 a year in taxes to Pasquotank County, where about half of the turbines are located. Perquimans County hauls in another $250,000.
All told, owners of the land where the turbines now spin bring in $624,000 annually from their leases.
Leker said he hasn't seen evidence of Brown's argument that the wind farms have the potential to impact military operations, especially since part of the construction process requires companies to get clearance from the DOD's Siting Clearinghouse, which studies that very issue.
"I don't get a sense that he trusts that process maybe," Leker said. "Or maybe he doesn't know about it."
Harris is also doubtful and said the military officials his county worked with were "beyond professional" during the approval process. He was particularly critical of a claim from Brown and other lawmakers that military officials downplayed their concerns about wind farms to avoid crossing their previous commander-in-chief.
"It's really kind of insulting to the military to think that they would create a hazard for their own operation because they wanted to make nice to the then-Obama administration," Harris said.
Although Harris said his economic development board hasn't taken a formal position on the moratorium, he called the measure "unfortunate."
"In our part of the region, I don't think you'll find many people that feel it's necessary," Harris said.