Two proposed wind farms will likely 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 during the last week of the session into a solar 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.
County managers in the two counties where the wind farms were to be built are worried about the potential loss of tax revenue from the projects if the projects don’t go forward. The bill has also rattled wind developers because it’s only 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 separating wind farms and military installations.
The 18-month moratorium was initially brought up in the Senate as a four-year ban, but was scaled back as a compromise and added to the solar bill during closed-door negotiations; it would also 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.”
Sen. Harry Brown, Senate Majority Leader and author of the moratorium and mapping requirement, said he is concerned about the wind farms because the Department of Defense can shut down and relocate military bases if they are incompatible with local surroundings.
“My intent is to protect these military bases that drive our economy in eastern North Carolina,” Brown said.
“I can’t imagine a 1 1/2-year setback would make a difference to these projects, unless they know they would interfere with military flight patterns,” he added.
As part of its military review, RES has an agreement with the Department of Defense and the Air Force to shut off Little Alligator’s turbines for up to 380 hours a year if the spinning blades cause interference with low-altitude fighter-pilot training runs from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
The turbines in the Timbermill and Little Alligator projects would be among the tallest in the United States. Little Alligator’s blade tips could reach as high as 660 feet into the sky. By comparison, the Amazon Wind Farm, operating in Pasquotank and Perquimans counties, is 492 feet tall.
The Amazon Wind Farm also went through a military review and was scaled back from 150 turbines to 104 turbines after the Department of Defense expressed concerns about the project. It is also bound by an agreement with the Department of Defense and U.S. Navy to stop operating if the blades cause interference with national-security surveillance radar located in Chesapeake, Va.
Timbermill Wind is under review by the Department of Defense and the Federal Aviation Administration, said Apex spokesman Kevin Chandler.
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 Republican sponsor of House Bill 589, said the benefits of his legislation for promoting solar power 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 because it is highly unlikely that the U.S. Department of Defense would allow wind farms to be built in areas where they pose risks to training fighter pilots.
Brown, a Republican from Jacksonville and owner of two car dealerships, has unsuccessfully proposed previous wind farm restrictions, including a three-year moratorium earlier this year. All were rejected by lawmakers. Brown said wind developers should have nothing to worry about if their turbines don’t interfere with military flights.
“I think military and wind farms can co-exist but only in certain places,” Brown said. “Until you draw some maps and know where they are, it’s prudent to protect these bases.”
Lost tax revenue
As wind farm designs become taller and the towers encroach on residential and tourist areas, wind farms have faced public opposition as eyesores, nuisances and health hazards. Hundreds of residents have signed petitions opposing Timbermill Wind, and last year Perquimans County denied a permit for the project, numbering 57 turbines; the county’s decision was upheld last month by a Superior Court judge.
In neighboring Chowan County, the 48-turbine wind farm would generate about $800,000 in property tax revenue in its first year of operation, an 8.5 percent increase in county property tax revenue, said Chowan County manager Kevin Howard. 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,” Howard said, adding that 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.