The Amazon wind farm in North Carolina. Credit: Avangrid Renewables

No new wind farms would be allowed in North Carolina until at least 2021, according to a provision tucked into budget legislation by Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown (R-Onslow) and approved last week by the GOP-led state Senate.

As the $22.9 billion spending bill is taken up in the House, also controlled by Republicans, the moratorium sets up a showdown between the two chambers for the second year in a row over the future of wind energy in the state.

At the core of the dispute is whether projects like the $300 million Timbermill Wind farm, ensnared in the ban, can be developed in rural eastern North Carolina without harming the region’s existing economic engine: the military.

“What the wind folks would like to do if possible is put those wind mills anywhere they want,” Brown said, defending the moratorium on the floor of the Senate. “I think there’s a real argument about how that could possibly kill the number two industry in our state.”

But many House Republicans note that wind projects are already carefully sited to avoid military interference, and can boost tax receipts and create jobs in rural areas.

“These counties have limited resources to obtain increased revenue,” said Rep. Bob Steinburg (R-Chowan), whose district includes the state’s first wind farm, Amazon Wind Farm U.S. East, as well as Timbermill. “This is an opportunity that’s been dropped in our lap.”

Last year’s standoff ended when the House adjourned without taking up Senate legislation that banned new wind development virtually everywhere in the state. Prospects for the moratorium look no better this year in the House, where Republicans are divided on the issue.

“I feel quite confident that there would be a real obstacle with the budget if this provision were to remain in,” said Steinburg. “It’s a non-starter.”

‘I know the process works’

The debate has exposed the related but distinct interests of military bases and those of the communities who host them.

Like any structure 200 feet or taller, wind turbines must win a determination of “no hazard” from the Federal Aviation Administration. Before the FAA can issue that stamp, the U.S. Department of Defense has to conclude the turbines won’t have an “adverse impact on military operations and readiness.”

It’s no easy test. At least two wind farms in eastern North Carolina have been rejected for military conflicts, one for impeding flight paths approaching the Dare County bombing range, and the other for interfering with a Navy radar in Virginia.

“I’m the person who blocked Pantego, and I’m the person who blocked Hales Lake,” Dave Belote, a former military official who created and led the DOD approval process, told a panel of lawmakers last month. “I know the process works.”

No active-duty military personnel have argued publicly they lack input into wind farm siting. And the Pentagon maintains that the Amazon wind farm, a target of GOP lawmakers’ ire earlier this year, poses no threat to national security.

Even Brown, among the 10 lawmakers who wanted the 104-turbine farm to be shut down because of alleged radar disturbance, appears to have dropped the cause.

“The Amazon piece is already there,” he said. “This [moratorium] doesn’t affect that at all.”

The specter of Base Realignment and Closure

But though Brown and other critics acknowledge federal law may protect military operations and readiness, they say it leaves vulnerable the core interests of military communities: retaining jobs and economic development.

“DOD can close [Marine Corps Air Station] Cherry Point or Seymour Johnson [Air Force Base] and move them wherever,” said Brown, whose senate district is adjacent to Cherry Point. In that case, he said, “I think we know what happens to those two communities. So, you’ve got to do a lot of things to protect them.”

The fears of Brown and others are fueled by the specter of Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC. Since its formation at the end of the Cold War to reduce military waste and overhead, the federal process has closed hundreds of bases across the country.

So far, North Carolina, which claims the mantle of the “nation’s most military friendly state,” has been largely spared from BRAC’s cuts, and two of its bases are probably immune to closure. By population, Fort Bragg in Fayetteville is the largest military installation in the world, and Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville is the largest Marine Corps base on the East Coast.

But for smaller installations, the threat of closure or downsizing may not be imaginary. In 2005, realignment caused a net loss of more than 1,100 direct and indirect jobs at Cherry Point, according to a report from the Department of Defense.

In the wake of BRAC’s creation in the 1990s, nonprofits were formed to facilitate good relations between military installations and the communities that house them, and convince officials to look favorably on their bases during periodic reviews.

Allies for Cherry Point’s Tomorrow admits moving the Marine Corps station from Havelock, a town of about 20,000 at the mouth of the Neuse River, not far from the Crystal Coast, “would be very expensive and may never occur due to political reasons.”

But, the organization’s president and Havelock mayor, Will Lewis, wrote to lawmakers, “moving a mission or even a few squadrons to a more training-friendly area of the country would have a tremendously negative impact on North Carolina.”

Most military communities say neither the Amazon wind farm or the Timbermill project causes them concern.

“There’s no project that has us worried right now,” said Jamie Norment, a lawyer representing Allies for Cherry Point’s Tomorrow. But, he said, “we don’t know what might slip through the cracks.”

‘Arbitrary and unscientific’

Brown’s response to that anxiety is the moratorium. While it’s in effect, he wants the state to update an existing map of flight training paths and other features, ultimately delineating certain areas as off limits to wind energy development.

Critics of this strategy say it only duplicates information the military already uses to evaluate wind projects, and that it’s just another means of creating “generic standoff distances” that the DOD itself has said are not useful.

“A broad-brush approach to siting wind projects is arbitrary and unscientific,” said Don Giecek with Apex Energy, the Timbermill Wind developer.

Instead, said Michael Speerschneider, speaking on behalf of the American Wind Energy Association, “through detailed, site-specific technical analysis, wind farms have successfully and repeatedly worked with the DOD and local bases to address any issues that would negatively impact mission viability.”

Furthermore, wind turbines aren’t necessarily an obstacle to low-level flight training, says Belote, the former military official who also consults with Apex. “You don’t want to create pristine environments inside these training areas,” he said. “You want it to look like the real world.”

Both Belote and Rep. Steinburg point out that Asia could be the site of a future U.S. military engagement, where wind turbines are “all over the place.” Instead of trying to shield pilots from wind farms, said Steinburg, North Carolina should be thankful for its turbines, “so we can prepare them for the mission.”

A better approach?

Steinburg and others acknowledge the worries military communities have about the current process. That’s why he has cosponsored a bipartisan measure that he says balances their interests with wind developers, conservationists, and others.

“The very concerns that are being expressed by Senator Brown are being addressed and then some in this bill,” Steinburg said.

Ironically, Brown’s insistence on including policy on wind energy in the budget could breathe new life into the legislation, House Bill 574, which easily passed a key committee but failed to meet an important deadline April 27.

Authored by Reps. Holly Grange (R-New Hanover), John Szoka (R-Cumberland) and Sam Watford (R-Davidson), the bill allows the state’s newly created Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, which serves bases as well as the communities that are home to them, to veto any wind farm project.

State military and environmental officials support the measure, along with Apex Energy, clean energy and conservation groups.

Grange says she has also met with the nonprofits that represent military communities. So far they like the bill’s concept, but not its particulars.

“We do not oppose wind energy,” Bowen Heath, who represents Friends of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, told lawmakers during a committee hearing on the bill. “Our sole goal is to keep the Air Force base [in Goldsboro]. As this bill is drafted, we have a couple of major concerns.”

“The current version of this legislation is not acceptable,” Norment of Allies for Cherry Point’s Tomorrow told the same committee.

But Grange, a former engineer at Fort Bragg, is hopeful her bill will ultimately satisfy all parties open to wind energy, including Goldsboro, Havelock, and other similar communities. “We’re a military state,” she said. “I don’t think that’s going to change.”

Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Elizabeth has covered the state’s clean energy transition for the Energy News Network since 2016. She has also produced features for Environmental Health News and SEJournal, the news magazine of the Society of Environmental Journalists. A former communications director for the nonprofit Environment America, Elizabeth brings over two decades of environmental and energy policy experience to her reporting.