Elizabeth Ouzts / Energy News Network
The state’s controversial wind ban is set to end Jan. 1, unless its author makes a push to extend it.
As North Carolina lawmakers gather in Raleigh this week for an unusual lame duck session, clean energy advocates are bracing for a potential showdown over wind energy.
A controversial ban on new wind farms is supposed to end Jan. 1, but observers fear the ban’s author, state Sen. Harry Brown, will push to extend it or make it permanent before its expiration date.
To prepare for battle, advocates have produced short videos extolling the virtues of the state’s only existing wind farm and another project delayed by the ban, both in eastern North Carolina.
They’ve brought lawmakers on tours of wind turbine component manufacturers elsewhere in the state.
And they’ve enlisted retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Castellaw to educate lawmakers about how the military coordinates with prospective wind projects — most recently at a luncheon sponsored by the nonprofit Conservatives for Clean Energy.
But it’s not clear any of this activity has persuaded Brown, the powerful Senate majority leader who has long argued that 500-foot-tall wind turbines will harm low-level flight training and other military operations in North Carolina.
“I don’t have a prediction on the special session,” said Katharine Kollins, president of the Southeastern Wind Coalition. “I’ll be hoping that what we’ve done to date inoculates the wind industry against more bad legislation. It’s sad when that involves crossing your fingers.”
Military already has role in wind siting
North Carolina’s best prospects for wind energy are in its eastern coastal plain, where farmers are eager for the extra income that comes from leasing their land for turbines, and cash-strapped county governments are keen on growing their tax bases.
“We’re the poorest of the poorest in North Carolina,” says Win Dale, executive director of the Edenton-Chowan Chamber of commerce, in one video produced by the Southeastern Wind Coalition. “So, any kind of industry that we can attract to come here brings huge benefits to us.”
But military operations are also a powerful economic engine in eastern North Carolina. Brown’s Onslow County district hosts one of the nation’s largest Marine bases, and six other military installations in the region generate tens of billions of dollars in activity each year.
A 2013 state law prevents any wind farm that would “result in a detriment to continued military presence in the state.” The Federal Aviation Administration won’t allow any project 200 feet or taller without sign-off from the Department of Defense.
President Donald Trump last year signed a revision into the law specifying that local base commanders, not just top brass in Washington, D.C., are involved in the “Clearinghouse,” the vetting process for proposed new projects.
Officials say no project in the country has ever been built over military objections. The Clearinghouse has blocked at least two wind farms in eastern North Carolina — one for impeding flight paths approaching the Dare County bombing range and the other for interfering with a Navy radar in Virginia.
“That is the center of gravity for this,” Castellaw told the audience at the Conservatives for Clean Energy luncheon, “and it’s working, and we need to continue to support it.”
Still, Brown insists local military communities could be pressured into accepting wind and solar farms, leading the Pentagon to close, downsize, or relocate installations to other states. The solution, he says, is a statewide suite of maps outlining potential military conflicts that would rule out wind energy in certain places.
Two years ago, Brown sought to use a version of these maps to outlaw wind energy virtually everywhere in the state, but the effort failed due House opposition. Last year, Brown took a new tack, advocating a moratorium on wind energy until a study of its suitability for the state — including a new set of maps — could be completed.
The GOP-led House didn’t support this idea, either, but Brown wouldn’t pass its bipartisan measure on solar energy through the Senate, also controlled by Republicans, without the wind moratorium. The House relented, and the 18-month moratorium became law.
Study completed but not made public
The required wind study is now complete, but it was originally designated “for official use only” and only a handful of people have seen it. Chuck Hefren, the nonpartisan legislative staff person who shepherded the analysis, said he is working to produce a “generalized set of maps” that could be made public.
Brown is among the few legislators who’ve received a presentation about the study, along with a draft of the maps, Hefren said. “We did provide him with a presentation,” Hefren said. “I think he was happy with the result.”
Still, advocates worry that Brown will try to use the study to extend the moratorium or make it permanent. Asked by a reporter in mid-November whether he planned to do anything about the maps or wind energy during the November session, Brown was noncommittal.
“I plan to look at them when we get back,” he said.
Hefren doesn’t expect public maps to be ready this week, in large part because he’s waiting for feedback from military officials. And he cautions that because the study analyzes all military uses in the state, it could be misconstrued if not presented properly.
“We created one depiction that identified if there was one or more restrictions in that area,” he said. That depiction might appear to rule out wind energy, he said, but “some of those restrictions wouldn’t be applicable to a tall structure.”
That’s why advocates argue more maps are unnecessary and counterproductive. Prospective wind energy developers already consult with military officials, both informally and formally. Individual military installations, meanwhile, have produced their own maps designating ideal spots for wind energy.
Castellaw has tried to drive that point home with lawmakers. Plus, he maintains that wind turbines pose far fewer conflicts with military bases than do housing developments. “That to me is where the real threat is,” he told the audience at the luncheon.
Advocates have also focused attention on the jobs created by manufacturers around the state who produce turbine blades and other components, hosting legislative tours of facilities like Saertex, outside Charlotte, which employs 240 people.
“North Carolina is home to over two dozen companies that create products especially for wind energy,” Kollins told luncheon attendees.
While these arguments have long since won over the public at large and a majority in the state House, critics remain. Comments on the Southeastern Wind Coalition’s video reveal a litany of concerns, from bird deaths to noise to skepticism about economic benefits.
More pro-clean energy lawmakers were just elected to the Senate, but they won’t be sworn in until January. And though the GOP lost its veto-proof majority Nov. 6, this week it still has a supermajority that can push through legislation over the objection of Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat.
That means that if Brown and his fellow senators can find another House bill to hold hostage, they could push through another controversial anti-wind provision if they choose.
“It really just boils down to, is there something they can tack a moratorium extension onto that is must-pass legislation?” said Kollins. “Let’s hope not.”