New Bern, NC – The coastline of North Carolina could look very different in a decade. As of August 2007, North Carolina standards require all investor-owned utilities in the state to supply 12.5% of retail electricity sales from renewable energy resources in the next ten years. As the state looks to expand its use of green energy, large wind turbines could start to pop up at the coast by the end of this year. Wind energy sites are currently being planned for Beaufort, Camden, and Pamlico Counties. Neil Jones is the Director of Project Development for Bay River Wind.
"The Pamlico area is one area we can definitely consider for development and I think it will be a good mix with the local community and a good mix with the current generation that's in place now."
The Wind Capital Group, headquartered in St. Louis, is in the process of acquiring 20,000 acres in Pamlico County to build 44 to 94 wind turbines, part of the Bay River Wind project. The site is located east of highway 306 and north of Bayboro, and is currently open farm land, woodlands and swamp. Jones says the project will offer clean, renewable power as well as economic benefits for Pamlico County.
"this is going to be very good for the county because it provides those 10 to 15 jobs that are permanent and it also provides that 20+ million dollars of tax revenue over the life of the project."
Jones says about 4,000 acres of land has been acquired so far. Construction is slated to begin in late 2013. A smaller wind project, is closer to construction phase in Beaufort County, but the project is hearing opposition from environmentalist and others who say the economy of the area would suffer. One of America's largest wind farm developers, Invenergy, wants to build the Pantego Wind Energy Facility, which would include 49 wind turbines, providing enough electricity to power 15,000 homes. The wind farm will be located on 11,000 acres - 20 miles east of Washington, near the communities of Terra Ceia and Pantego. The company's vice president of business development in the eastern region, David Groberg says Invenergy started scouting sites in North Carolina in 2009.
"We considered a range of sites in North Carolina. Like most developers, when we started in North Carolina, we started looking at some of the windier areas along ridges in the western part of the state. But due to state policy, those sites are off-limits. So then we turned our attention to the areas in the eastern part of the state."
Groberg says the wind available needs to be strong enough to turn the giant turbines, which stand approximately 500 feet tall. By 2010, a dozen potential locations in eastern North Carolina had been selected, but the site in Beaufort County was put at the top of the list because meteorological data collected at the site showed the area had an excellent wind resource.
"In general, in eastern North Carolina, what we've found are wide open agricultural areas with wind speeds that we believe are sufficient to develop the economics we need to make the projects work. We had enthusiastic landowners who are interested in working with us."
But not everyone is happy with the arrangement . . .. Environmentalists are worried about the potential impact of wind turbines on wildlife . . .and one independent researcher goes as far as so say the project would negatively affect the area's economy. However, Invenergy's Groberg, maintains the Pantego Wind Project will be a will be an economic driver for Beaufort County.
"you're looking at during construction, we think for a project the size of Pantego around 10 million dollars going directly into local spending on goods and services and materials that would be used during construction. During construction, there will be a lot of activity, about 100 construction jobs and folks helping to build the project. Once the project is done, we think it's sufficient for 5 good paying permanent jobs full-time and also another million dollars of spending every year once the project is up and running, including taxes and payments to landowners and other services."
While the project seems to be an economic boon for the rural area, independent researcher and physicist, John Droz of Morehead City, disagrees.
"There is two problems with these claims: number one none of them are guaranteed. So, they are just talk effectively. Nothing is in writing as far as being guaranteed. For instance, if they only end up hiring only two people instead of 5, there's no penalty, there's no consequence it's just the way it goes."
Droz says he's concerned about the project in relation to tourism and agriculture.
"It doesn't take too much effort to look into it to see there is actually significant economic employment downsides. I talked at the Beaufort County commissioners meeting and showed them the figures."
Using statistics from the state and a Scottish Government study on wind turbine tourism impacts, Droz estimates the annual net economic loss for Beaufort County at 12 million dollars.
"I've been involved with environmental matters for about 30 years. It started with water quality issues and for the last quite a few years, I've been focused on energy."
Droz is unconvinced wind energy is a viable solution in the long run.
"There is no such study any place in the world that shows that wind energy is cost beneficial."
Beyond economic implications . . . environmental activist are also skeptical about the wind project in Beaufort County. Even though the refuge is not in Beaufort County, birds do use area fields as feeding grounds. Dorris Morris, the Vice President of the Friends of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge says the giant spinning blades of wind turbines would pose a great threat to thousands of snow geese and tundra swans that migrate to the refuge for the winter.
"the wind suction of the wind turbine has a tendency to throw these birds off balance. It will suck them into the turbines and cause tragedy. With geese, we know it's a flock of them so it's not just one. They're flying in formation so it's the whole herd of the geese."
Morris says officials with the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge wrote a letter last month to the North Carolina Utilities Commission expressing their concerns with the placement of the Pantego Wind Energy Facility and asked for an in-depth impact study on birds and other animals in the project area.
"Knowing that our country needed green energy, it sounded like a good thing that could come to our area. But when we found out the location, was right on the feeding ground of where these tundra swans and snow geese come every winter, we just automatically threw up some red lights that this needs to be checked into a whole lot deeper."
Invenergy Vice president of business development in the eastern region, David Groberg responds.
"we did look at wildlife issues and we felt like this was an area where the impacts of turbines on wildlife would not be significant. There are a lot of places in eastern North Carolina where you have endangered species, which we don't expect to have at this site. There are places in eastern North Carolina where you have more undisturbed land, and this is an area that is intensively actively managed agriculture."
A highly-detailed avian study for the project area began in November. Groberg says the results may be available by spring. Upon completion of the study, Invenergy consultants and biologist will meet with the fish and wildlife service officials to determine the next steps for the Pantego project. Beyond economic and wildlife issues, residents have voiced their concerns over noise associated with the skyscraper sized windmills. Groberg says noise pollution won't be an issue.
"Residents when you're right under the turbine, you can hear some of the mechanical sounds. But as you get further away, even a few hundred yards, those sounds tend to fade out and you can't hear them. And what you hear more often is the whoosh of the blades and its for a few thousand feet around the turbine you'll be able to hear it, but as you get out a quarter of a mile, the sounds should be heard much less often and much less significant."
If all goes as planned the Pantego Wind Energy Facility could begin construction as early as this year. Invenergy is also working on another wind energy project about 15 miles away - on an area near Hales Lake. More than 100 turbines are planned for that site in Camden and Currituck counties. If you would like more information on coastal North Carolina wind energy, visit publicradioeast.org.
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