The future of wind power in North Carolina may be decided in the next couple of months by lawmakers who are likely to revisit fears that giant turbines threaten national security in a state with a heavy military presence.
The North Carolina General Assembly recently convened for its 2018 short session, and some renewable energy advocates are bracing for a possible extension of an 18-month state moratorium on new wind power that ends in December. A map commissioned last year by the General Assembly from a private consultant to identify potential wind conflicts with the military operations is due this month and could add fuel to the debate.
"This legislative session will determine whether the moratorium on wind expires or if there will be additional legislation that will effectively regulate wind out of the state," said Katharine Kollins, president of the Southeastern Wind Coalition, whose members include electric utilities, wind developers, turbine manufacturers and environmental groups.
She said there are implications beyond North Carolina, which became a leader in the development of wind power last year with its first utility-scale wind farm, in a region with almost no wind energy.
"Pieces of negative wind legislation have a way of repeating themselves in other states," she said, citing new Tennessee legislation that adds restrictions on wind farm development there.
A Roadblock to Rural Income
The North Carolina anti-wind push has been led by state Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican whose 6th District includes the Marine Corps Air Station New River and Camp Lejeune, where nearly 45,000 active duty U.S. Marines are based. Brown, the Senate majority leader, did not respond to requests for comment.
As President Donald Trump was preparing to take office in January 2017, Brown and other North Carolina lawmakers wrote to Trump's now chief of staff, Gen. John Kelly, urging the incoming administration to shut down the new $400 million Amazon wind farm in northeast North Carolina, the largest wind project in the Southeast.
Though it's unclear what Trump could have done to remove the turbines, they claimed the wind farm posed an "imminent, highly likely unacceptable threat to our national security," particularly to a Naval radar outpost in Virginia near the North Carolina state line.
Two years earlier, Brown had told The Associated Press that "when you start allowing structures that aren't compatible with the training...you create a huge liability for the future of those bases."
To be sure, wind and other energy projects can conflict with the military.
(Conflicts between the military and wind power have also recently surfaced in California, involving offshore turbines and the U.S. Navy.)
But there's no need for any new North Carolina laws to protect military operations from turbines, said state Rep. Bob Steinburg, a Republican who represents six northeastern North Carolina counties including the two—Perquimans and Pasquotank—where the Amazon wind farm now pays hundreds of thousands annually in property taxes.
The Department of Defense already has that authority and used it to work with Avangrid to scale back and reconfigure the wind farm in his district, he said.
Legislators trying to block wind power are "irresponsible" and turning their back on rural counties that need the investment, Steinburg said. A new Moody's report calculates that wind farms have improved the finances in more than 400 counties in 41 states.
Many top U.S. companies are looking to buy renewable energy, and "if North Carolina throws up a roadblock to renewables, then what North Carolina is doing is throwing up a roadblock to...those companies."
The military already has a good process for reviewing wind and other energy developments, including transmission lines, said Joe Bryan, who was deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for energy from 2014-2017, and now consults on energy issues.
That process, which he said involves site specific analysis by top experts at a Defense Department clearinghouse, was strengthened by Congress last year. The military can effectively kill any wind project by declaring it an unacceptable risk to national security, he added.
"What makes sense to me is to let the military do their jobs," Bryan said.
A Defense Department spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
The Southeast's Wind Challenge
The Southeast has among the least wind generation in the nation.
The wind resources across the region aren't as strong, Kollins acknowledged. But there can be plenty of wind if turbines are tall enough to catch the drafts.
"Everything needs to go right for a project to be economically viable in the Southeast," she said.
The Amazon wind farm's 104-turbines are 500 feet tall, as tall as some 50-story buildings. It was developed by Avangrid Renewables. The company says it has the potential to power 61,000 homes and will supply electricity to a grid that serves Amazon's data centers.
Two other proposed utility-scale wind farms for North Carolina are waiting for the moratorium to be lifted, involving millions more in new investments.
Despite the ongoing military debate, David Kelly, with the Environmental Defense Fund in North Carolina, said he's never been more optimistic about wind power in that state.
The moratorium has allowed people to "to look at the facts," he said. And the Amazon project is letting people see economic benefits of wind, a renewable source of clean energy, he said.
"We are hopeful," he said, "that after this pause...we will pick up where we left off."