No. 2: Wind turbines spin to life
By Jon Hawley
Friday, December 30, 2016
Editor’s note: Our lookback at the top stories of 2016 continues.
In 2016, wind power became a reality in northeastern North Carolina.
This month, the Amazon Wind Farm US East spun to life in Pasquotank and Perquimans counties, where 104 turbines, each almost 500 feet tall, rose up west of the U.S. Highway 17 North Bypass. The wind energy facility has brought new jobs and major investment to the area. In years to come, it’s also projected to become the single largest property taxpayer in both counties.
But wind power has also caused blowback. Some citizens in Perquimans and Chowan counties have mobilized and scored a victory against a second project. The region enters 2017 unsure how far turbines will spread across the region.
The Amazon wind farm project, formerly known as Desert Wind, has taken more than six years to develop. Talks between the developer, then known as Iberdrola Renewables but now Avangrid Renewables due to a merger a year ago, led Pasquotank and Perquimans officials to issue permits for the project in 2011. The counties also agreed to generous property tax breaks to help drive forward a project that would bring massive investment to the region. Avangrid initially proposed investing $600 million to build 150 turbines.
But the project wasn’t supposed to break ground until July 14, 2015. Employing more than 200 temporary workers, Avangrid has spent the last year and a half installing service roads and other infrastructure and erecting turbines. Avangrid aimed to start operating this month, but it may slightly miss that target, according to an email from a company spokesman on Thursday.
“We're getting close,” said Paul Copleman. “As you know, all 104 turbines are now fully assembled, but we're still in the process of commissioning them, which entails checking their mechanical and electronic components so we can synchronize with the energy grid, test sensors and readings, and operate them remotely.”
The Amazon Wind project has overcome big hurdles in recent years. Finding a buyer for the project's power was a long, secretive process for Avangrid. It finally announced that Amazon Web Services would be the buyer at a groundbreaking attended by Gov. Pat McCrory.
The project also had to beat back several legal and regulatory challenges. State lawmakers in 2013 considered legislation that would've reduced demand for renewable energy. Outcry from local officials and other wind supporters killed the proposal.
Avangrid also had to satisfy the military's concerns that its turbines wouldn't impair its radar and air operations. In August, Avangrid developer Craig Poff explained to local officials the company had scaled back the project to 104 turbines to ensure no radar impacts to the Navy's Northwest Annex in Chesapeake, Virginia. Provided the current turbines' operational data show minimal impacts, the company still plans to build the last 46, Poff said.
Avangrid also got a taste of the local opposition now working against the Apex Clean Energy wind project in Chowan and Perquimans counties.
A Perquimans couple sued the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality to force Amazon Wind project to go through another state permitting process. An administrative law judge ruled against the couple in June, however, finding state lawmakers intended to exempt the Amazon wind farm from the process.
Over the project's lifespan, Pasquotank and Perquimans officials have hailed it for its economic and environmental benefits. The project has brought new jobs, lease payments for local landowners, major new tax revenues and raised the region's national profile, they've said.
In theory, the wind farm that Apex Clean Energy is proposing in Chowan and Perquimans offers the same benefits. Apex has proposed a $400 million, 104-turbine project across both counties. The project is moving forward in Chowan but contested in Perquimans.
In November, the Perquimans Board of Commissioners blocked the project on the Perquimans side, voting 3-2 to deny Apex a conditional use permit it needs. Property owners, such as Tommy Harrell, argued the project's massive turbines would lower the value of surrounding properties. Harrell told The Perquimans Weekly after commissioners' vote that property owners have had a “hard, emotional battle to protect what's ours.”
Perquimans commissioners shared their concerns that the project would impact their properties. Commissioners Fondella Leigh and Wallace Nelson agreed the project might lower property values, while Commissioner Kyle Jones said it wasn't clear it would be “in harmony” with surrounding properties.
Generally speaking, property owners' concerns with wind farms is that turbines will be built too close to their residences. They warn the turbines' low but steady noise, as well as “shadow flicker” from spinning blades, will be a constant irritant. Those factors, and the constant sight of turbines, makes property owners worry they won't be able to profitably sell their land one day.
Apex has appealed commissioners' decision to Perquimans County Superior Court. A court date hasn't been set yet, but is expected early next year.
Chowan residents are also fighting Apex's decision to move forward with the Chowan side of the project. Patrick Flynn and his wife, Belinda, have filed a petition in Chowan Superior Court asking the court revoke the conditional use permit that Chowan commissioners granted for the project in Chowan. In addition to potential loss of property value, the Flynns also claim the project will harm their health and say it's unclear what impact it will have on wildlife.
Defending the project on Chowan's behalf, attorney John Morrison said the project is also going through extensive review by state agencies. He noted that the Superior Court cannot retry the merits of the permit. It can only review whether commissioners properly held a hearing on the permit, he said.
Perquimans Weekly Editor Peter Williams and Chowan Herald Editor Reggie Ponder contributed to this report.