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Why there’s little talk about land-based wind farms in rural NC

The News & Observer|Adam Wagner|February 9, 2022
North CarolinaZoning/Planning

Wind energy advocates attribute the scarcity of onshore wind turbines in North Carolina to several factors, including moratoriums introduced by the N.C. General Assembly in recent years, the state’s large rural population and Duke Energy’s preference for solar energy in the Carolinas.


Just west of a Walmart in Elizabeth City, the road dead ends and drivers can take in the only wind farm operating in North Carolina, turbines clearly visible across the horizon, massive blades pinwheeling in the breeze.

While offshore wind is receiving increased attention from businesses and state officials, onshore wind development remains rare in North Carolina. Avangrid started operating the Elizabeth City wind farm, North Carolina’s first, in 2017. Its 104 turbines, spread across more than 22,000 acres, provide power to Amazon Web Services data centers.

Another wind farm, Apex Clean Energy’s Timbermill Wind in Chowan County, is in the midst of the permitting process and could start generating enough power for as many as 47,000 homes by the end of 2023.

Wind energy advocates attribute the scarcity of onshore wind turbines in North Carolina to several factors, including moratoriums introduced by the N.C. General Assembly in recent years, the state’s large rural population and Duke Energy’s preference for solar energy in the Carolinas.

“Most of the developers pulled out a couple of years ago when the ... more [truncated due to possible copyright]

     

Just west of a Walmart in Elizabeth City, the road dead ends and drivers can take in the only wind farm operating in North Carolina, turbines clearly visible across the horizon, massive blades pinwheeling in the breeze.

While offshore wind is receiving increased attention from businesses and state officials, onshore wind development remains rare in North Carolina. Avangrid started operating the Elizabeth City wind farm, North Carolina’s first, in 2017. Its 104 turbines, spread across more than 22,000 acres, provide power to Amazon Web Services data centers.

Another wind farm, Apex Clean Energy’s Timbermill Wind in Chowan County, is in the midst of the permitting process and could start generating enough power for as many as 47,000 homes by the end of 2023.

Wind energy advocates attribute the scarcity of onshore wind turbines in North Carolina to several factors, including moratoriums introduced by the N.C. General Assembly in recent years, the state’s large rural population and Duke Energy’s preference for solar energy in the Carolinas.

“Most of the developers pulled out a couple of years ago when the land-based wind moratorium was implemented,” said Katharine Kollins, president of the Southeastern Wind Coalition. “They didn’t see any interest from the utility (Duke) in terms of procuring land-based wind. The utilities in this state have been highly focused on solar procurement.”

Kollins added that North Carolina’s heavily populated rural areas make it difficult to find the hundreds of unpopulated acres that wind farms need. There are more than 3.6 million people living in North Carolina’s 78 rural counties, according to the N.C. Rural Center, which defines a rural county as one with 250 people or less per square mile.

NC LEGISLATORS’ MORATORIUMS AND WIND PROJECTS

Apex’s Timbermill project was one of two in the works when North Carolina legislators added an 18-month moratorium on wind energy projects to comprehensive energy legislation in July 2017. The other, which would have seen 29 turbines built on land owned by Weyerhaeuser in Tyrrell County, fell through while the moratorium was in effect.

“When you are a developer and you invest time and money into a project and then the government comes in with a regulatory burden that stops your project, I don’t care what industry you’re from, that’s incredibly problematic and definitely has long-lasting impacts,” said Rachael Estes, Apex Clean Energy’s director of state affairs.

Led by the since-retired Sen. Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican, legislators expressed concerns that the development of wind farms could impact operations at sprawling military bases in Eastern North Carolina like Camp Lejeune, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base or Fort Bragg. That worry persisted despite wind farms needing clearance from the Department of Defense and the Federal Aviation Administration.

After that moratorium expired in 2019, legislators proposed another moratorium on wind projects in 40 counties, this time lasting three years. That was dropped midway through the bill’s path through the N.C. General Assembly, The News & Observer reported, in favor of a provision requiring wind developers to seek additional information about potential conflicts from military leadership.

WHERE TO PUT ONSHORE WIND FARMS

Figuring out where to put an onshore wind farm is difficult. Don Giecek, Apex Clean Energy’s senior development manager, said the 189 acres in Chowan County north of Edenton were promising because they offered 189 acres of farm and forest, had an existing transmission line nearby that could handle energy generated there and would not bother nearby residents or interrupt military operations.

“We like to look at the site as being kind of like a doughnut hole in terms of military coordination. We’re in a good place there,” Giecek said.

Timbermill is working with Chowan County officials to determine the taxes it will pay for the project, Giecek added. The company has offered to pay more than $800,000 in taxes annually, a figure that Giecek said would make it the largest taxpayer in Chowan County.

Estes, who also serves as the board chair of the Carolina Clean Energy Business Association, said future onshore wind projects could help North Carolina reach the emissions reduction goals that were codified in 2021’s House Bill 951.

The bill requires Duke Energy to cut carbon emissions 70% from 2005 levels and reach net zero by 2050, meaning a shift toward carbon-free sources like renewable energy.

“We’ve got some pretty big carbon reduction goals,” Estes said, “and we need to look at all carbon-free technologies to help meet those goals.”

This story was produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.

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