Could a Compromise End Perennial Wind Energy Fights in North Carolina?

BY: ELIZABETH OUZTS
6/27/2019

A compromise bill on wind energy now moving through the North Carolina General Assembly could end once and for all the perennial push to restrict turbines in the eastern half of the state.

The measure is a complete rewrite of Senate Bill 377, which originally prohibited new wind projects in an area stretching to more than 50 counties. The ban was reduced to three years before the bill cleared the Senate earlier this month, but sponsors promised their colleagues at the time that a new version was in the works.

The draft unveiled this week in the House of Representatives revises existing law to give civilians designated by military officials say in wind permitting decisions, a response to critics’ concerns that uniformed officers face too much internal pressure to greenlight wind projects.

If passed and signed into law, SB 377 could satisfy yearslong objections from Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown and House Majority Leader John Bell — both Republicans — and others who say that wind energy poses too much risk for the state’s economically vital military bases.

“It provides protection to our military,” Bell told a House committee this week. “It provides some certainty to the wind industry.” He urged his colleagues to support the measure, adding, “We hope that we’re not back here again addressing any other problem with the military in our state.”

‘You always worry that you would get trumped’

There’s no question that improperly placed wind turbines, towering upwards of 500 feet, can interfere with low-level military flight training paths. But Bell, Brown and other critics have long worried that overlapping regulations designed to prevent conflicts aren’t sufficient.

Like any structure 200 feet or taller, 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,” based on consultations with local base commanders and others.

Only one wind project in North Carolina, the Amazon wind farm near Elizabeth City, has gained approval through the federal process so far; to do so it had to lop off 46 planned turbines.

After the Amazon project was already underway, in 2013 the state adopted one of the nation’s strictest wind permitting laws for future wind farms, specifying that they must have FAA authorization and prove they won’t “have a significant adverse impact on the mission, training, or operations of any major military installation or branch of military in North Carolina.”

No wind farm has yet cleared both federal and state standards. Charlottesville-based Apex Energy is hoping to become the first with a 200-megwatt project in Chowan County. “We’d like to see this project get a chance to be vetted,” said Don Giecek, senior development manager at the company.

But Brown, whose coastal Onslow County district includes the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base, and others from military communities say the law doesn’t do enough. They argue the interests of the U.S. military don’t always align with communities whose economies depend on local bases; the Pentagon, after all, can always preserve its readiness by relocating flight training routes elsewhere. 

Many simply don’t trust the federal government. “The problem is you always worry that you would get trumped,” said Will Lewis, the mayor of Havelock, home to the Cherry Point Marine Air Corps Station.

‘They’re good people … sincere in their beliefs’

The American Wind Energy Association says the industry doesn’t want to develop where it’s unwelcomed, and it’s never completed a project over the objections of the military — in part because developments tend to get canceled or modified early in the process if they cause conflicts. But the lack of formal objections is a red flag for skeptics, who worry that military officials face too much pressure within their ranks to approve proposals and can’t speak freely against them without violating the chain of command. 

“Our base commanders are discouraged to come out and speak other than to talk about their mission,” said Lewis, who’s also the president of the Allies for Cherry Point Tomorrow, a nonprofit that advocates for the base. “They’re not allowed to weigh in locally like they should.”

Retired Lt. General John Castellaw, who spent 12 years stationed in North Carolina with the Marine Corps, defends current law and stresses that residential development is the biggest threat to the future of the state’s military bases — not wind energy. 

But he concedes there may have been communication breakdowns in the past between well-meaning representatives for wind developers, the military, and the towns where they’re located.

“There was a feeling among the local population that their concerns weren’t being considered,” Castellaw said of a potential project that could have affected Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro. “There’s always a feeling that the government is imperious and non-caring.”

But, he added, “I know these people. They’re good people. They are sincere in their beliefs.”

Indeed, over years of debate, Brown has insisted that he doesn’t oppose wind energy altogether but feels strongly that putting the airspace around military bases off-limits to turbines is the best way to protect them from closure or downsizing.

“I just know how bad eastern North Carolina already is, economically,” Brown said in an interview. “And I just don’t know how they survive losing one of these bases, or what they do to replace it, or how they move forward.” 

He’s not alone in his view. Two years ago, he successfully tacked an 18-month wind energy moratorium onto a solar energy bill pushed by the industry; only one member of his party voted against him in the Republican-led Senate.

This year, SB 377 cleared two committees in its original form, with many leaders from military communities showing up in favor. In a divided vote, the North Carolina Military Affairs Commission, an advisory body of which Brown is a member, also passed a resolution backing the bill.

But the GOP is divided on the issue overall, with many within the party arguing that a permanent ban violates property rights, hurts economic development in rural eastern North Carolina, and contravenes the will of even their most conservative constituents, who increasingly support wind and solar energy. 

Stage set for compromise

Democrats, meanwhile, are virtually united in favor of wind energy and against a ban. Though they’re in the minority, this year they also hold enough seats in both chambers to sustain an almost-certain veto from Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat. 

In any case, a stand-alone wind energy ban widely was viewed as dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled House. When the original version of SB 377 failed to clear the Senate before a key legislative deadline, the stage was set for a détente. 

Sen. Jim Perry, a Republican freshman from Goldsboro, led the truce talks. He revived the bill by adding a change to the state’s permitting fees, making it eligible again for consideration. He converted the ban to a three-year moratorium, but repeatedly told his colleagues he was working toward a different solution. “Our goal is to address this issue and not to keep kicking the can down the road,” Perry said in an interview.

The compromise that emerged in a House energy committee, Perry said, came out of negotiations with the wind industry and lawmakers from both sides of the debate, including Brown, Bell, and Sen. Bob Steinburg, the Republican from Chowan County whose district includes the Amazon project.

By allowing uniformed military officials to designate civilians to speak on their behalf, the new version of the bill allays concerns that base commanders are being pressured, Perry said. “This can be a political issue and we want someone to be able to speak freely without fear.”

The legislation also makes reference to maps of military operations in the state outlined in a study commissioned by the General Assembly without ruling out wind development in wide swaths of the state.

‘A bill that everybody can support’

Wind developers and their advocates back the new measure. “The last few years of regulatory unpredictability in North Carolina have been difficult on the industry and already turned away hundreds of millions of dollars that were poised to be invested in some of the lowest-income counties in the state,” Katharine Kollins, president of the Southeastern Wind Coalition, said in an email. “We hope this new language can lay the issue to rest.”

Of course, there’s no guarantee that the Senate will pass the House bill, nor that new concerns couldn’t arise in future years. Brown told the Raleigh News and Observer on Tuesday that he hadn’t looked at the latest draft of SB 377. But on the floor of the Senate earlier this month, he thanked Perry for “getting the parties together” to negotiate and previewed his consent for compromise.

“We’ve pretty much come to an agreement. We just have to get the language right,” he said. “When it comes back [to the Senate], I think it will be a bill that everybody can support.”