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Turbine blades the length of four shipping containers smoothly slice the air nearly 500 feet above this corner of northeastern North Carolina, but the building of the state’s wind industry has been anything but peaceful.

Craig Poff, the Philadelphia developer who spent nearly a decade assembling 22,000 acres across Perquimans and Pasquotank counties for the largest wind farm in the Southeast, says it’s unlikely he will be back for a second project. That was before 10 state legislators sent a letter to federal authorities seeking to shut down the site and the region’s congressman, Walter Jones, pushed for a curb on similar developments.   

Wind power is sweeping the United States — the U.S. Department of Labor predicts that wind-farm technician will be America’s fastest-growing occupation during the next decade — but it’s unclear which way it will blow in North Carolina.

As politicians attempt to apply the brakes, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is opening the door for offshore projects. It will auction 191 square miles of the Atlantic Ocean off Kitty Hawk this month. Six prior wind-lease sales in other parts of the country have generated$58 million for more than 1 million acres in federal waters.

Poff began making trips in 2009 from his home in Pennsylvania to a part of North Carolina so remote locals call it The Desert. The northern tip of the Outer Banks is about 40 miles away as the crow flies, but there are few direct roads to reach it, just a stark, beautiful landscape of mostly farmland stretching for miles. Wind farms, however, weren’t possible here until changing technology brought taller towers with longer blades able to reach higher, stronger winds. Poff, who has been vacationing for years in North Carolina, began scouting the state’s northeastern corner for his employer, Avangrid Renewables, the second-largest developer of wind projects in the U.S. and a subsidiary of Bilbao, Spain-based utility Iberdrola SA. Avangrid found a partner in e-commerce giant Amazon. Now, Amazon’s $400 million 208-megawatt farm is expected to generate enough energy to power 61,000 homes, offsetting the electricity-hungry server farms driving Amazon’s $12 billion cloud-computing business.

Outside Hertford, a town of about 2,000, 104 turbines as tall as PNC Plaza in downtown Raleigh rise from the cornstalks and soybean sprouts that farmers plant and harvest right up to the concrete bases. Avangrid initially planned on 150 turbines. “The possibility of adding [46 more] is something we’re actively exploring, but moving forward will depend on many variables,” says spokesman Paul Copleman.

The 60 landowners who signed leases with Poff will be paid about $6,000 annually for each turbine on their farms and other property for the 25 years Avangrid has pledged to maintain them. The deal was a win for Avangrid, too. Though wind power is weaker in North Carolina than other parts of the country, the area around Elizabeth City is in a wholesale electricity market, which provides open access to transmission lines. The company also was encouraged by a 2007 state law that requires Tar Heel utilities to achieve 12.5% of their total energy needs through renewable energy or efficiency measures by 2021.

Many others weren’t as happy. Neighbors concerned about property values, esthetics and noise sued to stop the project even as it broke ground last summer. Before that was a law passed in 2013 that requires wind projects to be approved by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. “The takeaway,” says Katharine Kollins, president of Chapel Hill-based Southeast Wind Coalition, a nonprofit working to advance the wind industry, “is that everything that is required in [this] state permitting process is already required at the county or federal level.”

A harbinger of things to come was a provision in the law allowing the state to consider whether proposed wind-energy facilities would interfere with “air navigation routes, air traffic control areas, military training routes or radar.” Lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to take another step this summer, introducing a bill that would prohibit new wind farms in most of central and eastern North Carolina. Then, just as the turbines were set to begin spinning, state lawmakers in January took the fight to the incoming Trump administration. A group of 10 legislators signed a letter to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, a retired Marine general, asking him to shut down the project because it posed a security threat. The Department of Defense agreed to the project, the letter says, only because it felt pressured by “political correctness” in the Obama administration.

At issue is possible interference with a long-distance radar installation a few miles away in Virginia and whether the turbines will obstruct military training flights. The Department of Defense approved the project, and military leaders have repeatedly said the wind farm won’t impede air traffic or seriously affect the radar. But that’s not reassuring to military communities in eastern North Carolina worried about potential base realignments and closings. The military supports about 10% of the state’s employment, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce. Kollins points out that wind and military installations co-exist in California and Texas, states with large military bases and the country’s largest wind farms. “I don’t think the concerns are unfounded,” she says, “but the level of which alarm bells have been ringing doesn’t match the realities of the facts.”

Construction of the farm has injected $18.5 million and counting into one of the poorest parts of North Carolina. While only 17 $80,000-a-year jobs will be permanent, Avangrid will be the largest taxpayer in two northeastern counties, at more than $500,000 in the first year. If a second industrial-scale wind farm straddling Perquimans and Chowan counties is approved, that number rises to three.

Will future developers have an appetite for a another? Balancing Poff’s caution, Jesse Gronner, Avangrid’s Portland, Ore.-based vice president of development, has said the company is looking for more opportunities in the state. Either way, Avangrid isn’t saying adieu to North Carolina just yet — the company is one of nine bidders for a federal wind project that seems certain. It’s just offshore.

Image courtesy of Cindy Burnham
Allison Williams
Allison Williams is senior editor of Business North Carolina. You can reach her at awilliams@businessnc.com.
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