HERTFORD — The developers of a proposed commercial-scale wind farm project in Perquimans and Chowan counties got a double dose of bad news last week.
First, a Superior Court judge upheld Perquimans County’s decision to deny Apex Clean Energy a conditional use permit for its Timbermill Wind project. Then, early Friday morning, the N.C. General Assembly passed a bill that included an 18-month moratorium on all wind energy projects in the state.
The second decision may force Apex to suspend the project, the company’s president said Friday.
“This is an anti-business moratorium shrouded as a pro-military measure,” Apex President and CEO Mark Goodwin said, referring to House Bill 589. “In even the best circumstances, developing a wind project involves time and risk. 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.”
HB 589 now goes to the desk of Gov. Roy Cooper, who can either sign it, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.
A spokesman for Cooper wouldn't say Friday whether the governor will veto the bill. A spokesman said only that the governor is carefully reviewing the measure.
If Cooper does veto HB 589, it's an open question whether the House could override him.
State Rep. Howard Hunter III, D-Hertford, who opposed the bill, said the House voted 66-41 to pass HB 589, noting that not all Republicans supported the measure and not all Democrats opposed it.
"If all Democrats had stuck together the vote would have been 53-54 to kill the bill," Hunter said.
In its original form, HB 589 was a bill that allowed property owners to lease solar panels on their rooftops instead of having to buy them outright. The 18-month moratorium on wind energy projects was tacked onto the bill by the state Senate and agreed to by both chambers of the legislature Friday morning. Though restrictive, the 18-month moratorium is less than the four-year halt that top Senate leaders originally had sought.
Supporters of the moratorium say it grants state officials time to determine if wind projects pose a problem for military operations. Military officials have said a number of times wind projects do not interfere with military operations and there are safeguards already in place to make sure they don’t. But critics of wind energy projects like state Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, continue to make the argument they can impede the operations at military bases — and that that could be a critical problem for a state so dependent on the military.
Cook said in a statement Friday that while “taxpayer-subsidized incentives” to the renewable energy industry are “resulting in higher energy costs” for consumers, that’s not the primary reason he supported the moratorium.
“It is about our responsibility to protect the investment the U.S. military has made in our state and honor our commitment to being the most military-friendly state in the country,” Cook said. “Businesses with defense-related contracts operated in 79 of North Carolina's 100 counties, contributing to more than $2.5 billion in defense procurement contracts in North Carolina during 2014.”
But Apex’s Goodwin suggested concerns about wind energy projects impeding military base operations was a non-issue because of the reviews that already take place to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“It’s worth reminding everyone that in addition to other facets of permitting, there already exist clear, thorough reviews at both the federal and state levels for potential wind energy interactions with military installations,” he said.
Goodwin blamed the moratorium on what he described as a “small number of elected officials were able to hijack what should have been a bright moment for clean energy in North Carolina.”
“This moratorium sends a clear signal that wind energy is not welcome in North Carolina while selfishly seeking to divide the renewables industry,” he said. “This is not the behavior of a pro-business, pro-property rights legislature.”
State Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, D-Northampton, strongly opposed the moratorium, calling it a "poison pill" in an otherwise good bill. Her district would benefit from both the Timbermill and Little Alligator projects, given it includes Chowan and Tyrrell counties.
Smith-Ingram said she wasn't sure if the 18-month moratorium would kill either project. The moratorium will definitely cost the developers money, however, and they could lose investors due to uncertainty about wind energy's future in North Carolina, she said. She also argued the moratorium would affect property owners leasing land for the wind farms, and that they should be compensated for the government impinging on their property rights.
While the moratorium could slow down wind projects, it notably doesn't prevent developers and state agencies from continuing to work on them. The moratorium provides that "neither the Department of Environmental Quality nor the Coastal Resources Commission shall issue a permit for a wind energy facility or wind energy facility expansion" through Dec. 31, 2018. Presumably, companies could still work with those agencies to submit permit applications, but they would have to wait until 2019 to get approvals.
In the other setback to Apex’s plans for the Timbermill project, Judge Walter Godwin rejected the company’s appeal of the Perquimans Board of Commissioners’ decision to deny the project a conditional use permit.
Leary Winslow, one of the Perquimans residents who opposed the Apex project, said he was “obviously very pleased” with Godwin’s decision.
“Now that a majority of the elected officials of Perquimans County have determined the project is not appropriate in the Bear Swamp and Center Hill communities (of Perquimans), and a court has ruled that decision was legal, we truly hope Apex will not continue to pursue a project that is not welcomed by residents of these communities,” he said.
The project was set to move forward in Chowan County, whose commission board did approve a permit for the project. The legislature’s 18-month moratorium, however, puts those plans on hold.