Powering North Carolina
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Ahoskie Chamber of Commerce leader Amy Braswell watched solar-energy generation spark Hertford County’s economy. Now she wants her fellow residents to feel another boost, this time from wind-energy generation.
Amy Braswell has a unique perspective on building prosperity in her community. In addition to managing her family’s 600-acre farm in Hertford County, she is Ahoskie Chamber of Commerce’s executive vice president, recruiting businesses, industry and jobs.
Lately, Braswell has been focused on renewable energy. And last December, when she accepted a North Carolina Clean Energy Champion award from San Francisco-based Chambers for Innovation and Clean Energy, she expressed optimism that renewables would spur further economic growth. “Hertford County is a mix of industries and agriculture, and we are now adding renewable energy to our portfolio,” she said during the awards ceremony. “We see the opportunity, and we are absolutely certain that renewables will play a role in our future economic-development planning.”
Hertford County, which abuts Virginia and the Chowan River, is home to 13 solar farms, including one of the largest in the state. Developed by Mooresville-based SunEnergy1, its 400,000 panels are located near N.C. 11, southwest of Ahoskie, and can generate 80 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 20,000 homes. And more projects are on the way to the county. Contracts and permits are in place to construct three solar farms, including one that is nearly complete along U.S. 158 outside Murfreesboro. But they may be the last, at least for a while.
Last October, Hertford County commissioners placed a moratorium on constructing solar-energy farms, creating time to study their impact on local landowners. But Braswell, whose farm is almost within sight of the largest one, sees renewable-energy generation as an opportunity to make a positive impact on the quality of life of county residents. “When you improve quality of life, you can attract more people and businesses, and it is a win-win for us in every direction,” she says.
The benefits start with construction. “When we build these projects, people come to our county, rent hotel rooms and dine in our restaurants,” Braswell says. Tax revenue from those purchases has enabled the county, for example, to produce special events, attract concerts and stage shows at the local amphitheater.
Now Braswell is touting the development of wind energy in northeastern North Carolina. Amazon Wind Farm North Carolina–Desert Wind, the first coastal wind farm in the Southeast, sits on land leased from 60 landowners in Perquimans and Pasquotank counties. Its 104 high-tech turbines, which can generate 208 megawatts of energy — enough to power 61,000 homes — reached full commercial operation in 2017. Portland, Ore.-based Avangrid Renewables, a subsidiary of Orange, Conn.-based Avangrid, which has renewable energy projects and 6,500 employees across 22 states, developed the project. It generates more than $1 million in annual county tax revenue and lease payments.
But Avangrid Renewables’ work in northeastern North Carolina isn’t finished. It submitted a construction and operations plan to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in mid-December for the first phase of the Kitty Hawk Offshore Wind project, located about 27 miles offshore of Corolla, a popular spot for tourists and wild horses on the Outer Banks. It would cover almost 122,500 acres and is projected to generate about 2,500 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 700,000 homes.
Braswell believes Hertford County would benefit from the Kitty Hawk project. Its Charlotte-based Nucor’s steel-plate mill in Cofield, near the banks of the Chowan River, along with a slew of North Carolina manufacturers could be links in a wind-farm project’s supply chain.
As a member of the Chambers of Innovation and Clean Energy, the Ahoskie Chamber of Commerce is part of a nationwide network that helps its members navigate and prosper in the clean-energy sector. CICE has named North Carolina as one of its priority clean-energy states in part because it’s No. 2 in the nation for installed solar capacity and No. 9 for clean-energy jobs. The organization also touts the state’s $120 million in renewable energy grants, more than 8,000 solar and wind energy jobs, and $9 billion in solar and wind capital investment.
CICE was founded in 1995 by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and The Chamber for a Greater Chapel Hill-Carrboro. Their leaders wanted to amplify the collective voice of local businesses and chambers, says Susan Munroe, who works from Raleigh as CICE’s director of economic development. “We’ve grown to well over 1,000 chambers in our network,” she says.
Munroe calls the Kitty Hawk project exciting. She believes it will bring hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in investment to North Carolina. “It’s the supply chain opportunity that is going to create the magic,” she says. Local chambers, such as Ahoskie’s, are perfect facilitators for county economic-development initiatives. “They’re the driving force in attracting business, industry and special projects like solar and wind farms to their communities,” she says.
Hertford County, which has about 24,000 residents, does not have an economic-development director. But Braswell sees her role with the chamber as filling that function. She’s passionate about bringing business and industry to a rural region historically perceived as agricultural with limited potential. She is intent on changing that perception. “A lot of people think of eastern North Carolina as being just an agricultural economy, but here in Hertford County, we continue to stay focused on growing our industrial base while contributing toward the state’s clean-energy goals,” she says.
WALKING A FINE LINE
The public and private sectors must find common ground, developing technology and methods of production and delivery of clean energy while preserving the state’s top-rated business climate in order to help meet environmental protection goals.
As North Carolina races toward Gov. Roy Cooper’s goal of a 40% reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2025, public and private organizations are uniting to transition the state’s economy to clean energy. The move must be affordable, reliable and equitable, experts say. And public interest, power-grid needs and state policy must be top of mind. “This ambitious goal requires collaboration and finding common ground with stakeholders, which is critical,” says Diane Denton, Charlotte-based Duke Energy’s vice president for state energy policy and member of the N.C. Energy Policy Council, which advises the governor and N.C. General Assembly. “Collaboration has been a hallmark of the governor’s plan and one in which Duke Energy has been actively engaged.”
Knoxville, Tenn.-based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which champions energy choices that strengthen communities, calls North Carolina “the undisputed leader in solar-energy development and deployment in the Southeast.” In addition to having the nation’s second-largest installed solar capacity, the state also boasts some of the East’s best offshore wind-energy resources. In 1975, the General Assembly passed the North Carolina Energy Policy Act, recognizing that the development of a reliable and adequate energy supply that is secure, stable and predictable is in the state’s best interest — pushing economic growth, creating jobs, and expanding business and industry, Denton says.
With climate change fueling most current energy-policy debates, North Carolina’s leaders are counting on energy initiatives to protect the health and prosperity of its residents, create jobs and modernize power generation. By leveraging energy resources, innovative public- and private-sector partners, and a competitive workforce, the state is positioned to drive a far-reaching transition to a clean-energy economy. But wielding these assets must be done while keeping energy prices affordable and maintaining North Carolina’s business climate, which Site Selection magazine ranked the nation’s best, tied with Georgia, in 2020. “I consider the ability to achieve at least 50% carbon reduction by 2030 and net zero carbon emissions by 2050 our North Star,” Denton says.
Raleigh-based North Carolina Electric Cooperatives represents 26 not-for-profit electric cooperatives, which serve about 2.5 million residents across an area that’s equal to nearly half of the state. Broad community support is the hallmark of the electric cooperatives, and they continue to make significant contributions to the communities that they serve. Nelle Hotchkiss, the organization’s chief operating officer and senior vice president of association services, says over the last five years, contributions to more than 100 economic-development projects have created more than 5,000 jobs and more than $1 billion in capital investment in rural North Carolina.
Among the cooperatives’ priorities are providing sustainable energy at the lowest possible cost, innovating and advancing grid operations, continuing emphasis on reliability and resilience, and encouraging community support. Hotchkiss says they developed an initiative that aligns with the state’s Clean Energy Plan, which calls for carbon neutrality by 2050.
“Our Brighter Future vision focuses on creating a low-carbon environment through sustainability and investment in low-to-zero emissions energy sources but also through integrating innovative technology that makes the electric grid more resilient, robust and flexible,” she says. “We continue to invest in power sources such as nuclear, which is carbon-emissions free, and natural gas, and we are increasing our use of renewable resources, including solar.”
The cooperatives have five microgrids in operation or under development. They add resiliency, sustainability and efficiency. The cooperatives also are expanding battery storage applications and investing in system redundancies to increase grid resilience. “The state’s electric cooperatives are proud to play a central role in keeping our state on the leading edge of a forward-thinking energy policy discussion,” Hotchkiss says.
Like the electric cooperatives, industry and policy experts have prioritized improving the state’s energy infrastructure. “Enhancing the resiliency of the energy grid and continuing to invest in making our system resilient and reliable can help attract business and industry that bring high-paying jobs and drive economic prosperity for our residents,” Denton says.
Hotchkiss agrees. “We’ve seen firsthand how innovation and technology that enhance sustainability, lower operating costs and provide added resiliency make North Carolina attractive to new business and industry, as well as helping retain and expand existing ones,” she says.
Steve Kalland, executive director of the N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center at N.C. State University, believes there isn’t time to waste. Other states are pursuing similar goals. “When it comes to competition, the race to deliver clean energy and a greener, more modern utility grid will pay off in economic development,” he says.
North Carolina already has made strides in developing solar energy. So, the Clean Energy Technology Center, which works to grow the sustainable energy economy, and the state Department of Commerce are collaborating and studying potential economic growth as well as supply chain and workforce opportunities that could come with the expanding East Coast offshore wind energy industry.
“We’ve certainly seen a lot of job creation from the solar boom in North Carolina,” Kalland says. “And now we have a chance to become a player for offshore wind construction and deployment, particularly for the projects that will be off our coast.”
Offshore wind generation is expected to provide more than 36 gigawatts of power — enough to power more than 9 million homes — over the next decade. Kalland says that will require billions of dollars of investment, which will benefit states from Maine to the Carolinas. And North Carolina is poised to take advantage of the opportunity. “We are one of the more manufacturing-friendly states, so there is a real push to work, to set North Carolina up to capture supply chain jobs out of offshore wind projects,” he says.
The state Department of Commerce recently started the North Carolina Offshore Wind Supply Chain Registry, which allows companies to publicly declare their interest and ability to supply wind-energy projects with components and services. Those include blades, towers, cables and wind-turbine parts, along with the infrastructure to bring power ashore. Transport and assembly of components, construction staging and site-related work also create jobs. And with ports in Morehead City and Wilmington, along with nearby Norfolk, Va., North Carolina’s coast offers opportunities to facilitate construction on shore and on the water.
Plugging into offshore wind power won’t be without issues. Kalland foresees the biggest coming from reaching a consensus among policy, political, business and industry leaders about the best strategy to facilitate these changes in energy resources. “If we take too long deciding what we should do or if we are not expansive enough in our thinking, we run the risk of falling behind neighboring states and other regions of the country that are working with some urgency on these issues,” he says. “If we do it right, we’ll continue to be a leader. And if we don’t, then we’ll be labeled a follower.”
— Teri Saylor is a freelance writer from Raleigh.