Hearings are underway in Chowan and Perquimans counties for a proposed 105-turbine wind farm in this rural section of northeastern North Carolina, just north of the Albemarle Sound and about an hour west of the Outer Banks.
If Timbermill Wind Farm is approved and begins delivering electricity – enough to power about 60,000 homes – it will edge out Amazon Wind Farm U.S. East as the largest wind development in North Carolina and all of the Southeast.
Experts say it’s little coincidence that Timbermill, proposed by Charlottesville-based Apex Clean Energy, is only eight miles from the Amazon project, which straddles Perquimans and neighboring Pasquotank county. But they caution that changes afoot in the state capitol could threaten the area’s potential as a wind energy hub.
‘A sweet spot’
A number of factors make this part of North Carolina primed for wind farms, starting with its wind potential.
“They’ve got a fantastic wind resource, and you need that anywhere you build,” said Katharine Kollins, president of the Southeastern Wind Coalition.
Other parts of the state also have abundant wind, but with state law preventing development on mountain ridgetops, and offshore wind still eight to ten years away, advocates say Eastern North Carolina is the ripest for wind farms.
“As far as the low-hanging fruit for wind development, it’s going to be that coastal plain,” said Peter Ledford, regulatory counsel with the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association.
The counties in this area are home to vast acreages of farmland and forestland, ideal places for wind developers to build dozens of turbines. Inland counties in Eastern North Carolina are struggling economically, making many eager for an industry that would add to their tax base.
And unlike in the rest of the state, energy generation and transmission here isn’t controlled by Duke Energy. Instead, power can be sold to any customer in a regional transmission market called PJM, which covers over a dozen states in the Mid-Atlantic and parts of the Midwest.
Experts say it is possible to build projects and sell power in regulated markets like Duke’s. But without stronger policy mandates or incentives, the utility is unlikely to sign long-term agreements itself to buy wind power directly. And while wind energy in Duke’s territory could be “wheeled” to another customer elsewhere, that process adds costs and complications.
Above all, developers said the PJM market provides certainty and transparency.
“Developers have expressed a preference for working in markets that… have price visibility,” said Andrew Gohn, Eastern Region policy director for the American Wind Energy Association. “They like to be able to operate [where] they can see what the price of power is going to be.”
“We happen to be in a sweet spot up here, north of Albemarle Sound,” said Wayne Harris, executive director of the Pasquotank County Economic Development Commission. “We’ve got pretty good wind. We have access to the PJM grid.”
‘Infrastructure for 21st century companies’
Scheduled to deliver electricity to the PJM market by the end of the year, the Amazon wind farm will generate enough electricity to match the retail giant’s power needs at new data centers in Ohio and Virginia.
While some are using these “out-of-state electricity sales” as an argument against wind farms in this area, many see the possibility of those sales as economic opportunity.
Amazon, Google, Apple, Walmart and dozens of other Fortune 500 companies have committed to power 100 percent of all their operations with clean energy. Advocates say they have to get that power from somewhere, with many now signing contracts directly with wind power companies rather than going through regulated utilities like Duke.
Rep. Bob Steinburg, an Edenton Republican who represents an area made up entirely of counties in PJM territory, said if major corporations want energy sources like wind and solar, his district should be poised to deliver.
Steinburg, a self-avowed “all of the above” person, acknowledged, “you don’t find too many Republicans, at least in these parts it seems, that embrace renewable energy.” But he said clean energy in his region was critical to “positioning for the future.”
“You are creating an infrastructure that will be appealing to these 21st century companies as they expand,” Steinburg said. “I’m looking at all of this through the lens of economic investment. Investment begets investment.”
Harris, the Pasquotank economic developer, said the star power of Amazon could make additional investment particularly likely.
“Having [the wind farm] branded with Amazon’s name was certainly a bit of marketing serendipity,” Harris said. “It seems to sharpen [people’s] interest in wanting to do business here.”
Harris also points to quantifiable benefits. The Amazon project’s developer, Avangrid Renewables, will become the largest taxpayer in Pasquotank and Perquimans counties once the project is complete. And he said the developer has already spent $13 million locally on site constructions, and still retains as many as 80 local workers for the project.
They made “an extraordinary good faith effort to hire as many local workers as they possibly could,” Harris said. “Our sales taxes overall in the county were up 11 percent in the fiscal year that just ended in June. The hotel and occupancy figures were off the charts.”
More hurdles ahead?
Before Northeastern North Carolina can become a true hotbed of wind energy activity, the Timbermill project must surpass a range of regulatory hurdles, some higher than the ones Amazon cleared.
“We met with lots of folks, had lots of public meetings,” said Paul Copleman, a spokesman for Avangrid. “We went through an incredibly rigorous, transparent, and science-based permitting process with a number of officials.”
But that process began in 2009, four years before lawmakers added a layer of statewide permitting requirements, which some experts are concerned is too cumbersome.
Amazon was also approved well before this summer, when the state Senate passed a measure to prevent wind farms near military bases, effectively precluding new wind development in Eastern North Carolina. The measure died in the House, but proponents have pledged to bring it up again next year.
“We’re excited to be bringing the Amazon project online,” said Copleman. “But there are more challenges now than when we were first looking at this project seven years ago.”
One step at a time
Timbermill is the first project proposed under the 2013 law, and faces the threat of additional – potentially debilitating – restrictions imposed by the General Assembly.
But developer Apex is taking the permitting process a piece at a time, focusing now on the first step: winning approval from Chowan and Perquimans county commissioners.
The project has drawn opposition from some local citizens, who’ve formed a non-profit and hired a lawyer to press their case that the turbines would lower property values, harm wildlife, and cause a litany of other problems.
Apex has submitted a raft of documents and hired experts to make their case and refute the claims, levied during the quasi-judicial process conducted by the counties.
“We’re confident that Timbermill Wind has been designed as a model project,” said Don Giecek, senior development manager for the company, “with the potential to provide decades of significant tax revenue for both counties.”
Steinburg, the state legislator, respects the right of county commissioners and local residents to reject Timbermill if they choose, but sees the development of renewable energy as inevitable.
“I don’t know about us. It depends on what the local governments decide,” he said. “But we as a nation are moving in this direction, and it’s not going to stop.”