The winds of change could be felt at North Carolina’s Clean Technology Summit February 18-19, but some were stronger than others.
Most Clean Technology Summit attendees already had the sympathies that make them open to wind energy’s development in North Carolina. But if there is a real victory to be won, everyone will need to be reached.
“While it’s wise for us to acknowledge that some of [the opposition’s] techniques may have some potential, so to speak, we also need to acknowledge that fear and misinformation is kind of the core of their approach,” Don Giecek of Apex Wind Energy said. “And we can’t afford to, nor do we want to, utilize those approaches. It’s important for us to stick to the facts and to be transparent—we have to do better.”
Green technology has been an unpredictable field for a while, particularly for wind energy. Several speakers, most from The Path Forward for NC’s Emerging Wind Industry panel, emphasized this point.
“In 2007 I was hired by a client to go out and prospect sites,” April Montgomery, owner of Renewable Energy and Preservation, said. “Today, if somebody called me with that same question and said, ‘We wanted to build a wind project in North Carolina,’ I would say, ‘Why?’”
But they have not given up yet. Here are five frequently asked questions North Carolinians have about wind energy as addressed by the experts:
How expensive is it?
“‘You guys are expensive, you’re just a government-funded program and, you know, your business is wholly supported by Obama and his policies.’ Well—it’s simply not true.” – Craig Poff, Iberdrola Renewables
Upfront costs of wind farms are very high, even on-shore.
Poff said this makes building them hard without start-up capital.
“Wind is a special beast,” said Wayne Harris, spokesperson from Pasquotank County Economic Development Commission, whose county is one of the two hosting the Amazon wind farm. “It has a multi-hundred million dollar upfront cost that doesn’t really work well with the existing property tax.”
But if it is allowed to grow, it could blossom. Lazard, a financial advisory firm, puts the unsubsidized, levelized cost of wind between $32 and $77 per megawatt/hour. That’s the lowest cost for either conventional or alternative, Poff said.
How does it affect local communities?
“We found that, almost unanimously as a matter of fact, people were very happy with the deals that they had struck with the wind industry.” – Wayne Harris, Pasquotank County Economic Development Commission
The first utility-scale wind farm in North Carolina, the Amazon Wind Farm US East, will begin work this year. It is in Perquimans and Pasquotank counties.
Harris, Pasquotank’s representative, said education helped locals get used to the idea.
“We looked at what other communities in other areas with stronger wind had done for Iberdrol and we talked with those people, we found that, almost unanimously as a matter of fact, people were very happy with the deals that they had struck with the wind industry,” Harris said.
He said he found profit because farmers are getting $300,000 annually and still being able to farm their land. And very little investment comes from the county to support that tax investment.
The panel moderator said a tax spillover is an added benefit for the communities.
“Regardless of that incentive grant pack, generally these projects are of the capital investment nature that make them still the largest taxpayer in that area,” Katherine Ross of Parker Poe said. “And we are talking about counties that don’t get a lot of capital investment projects”
The panelists continued to try to balance the public knowledge out.
“There’s an information asymmetry,” Harris said.
Is this a good energy source for NC?
“We can’t go make the wind blow harder… The sites are getting tougher, the wind is what it is, so we have to constantly up our game in terms of technology in the way we built projects, the way we design them, and everything else to maximize it.” –Craig Poff, Iberdrola Renewables
Even as the cream of the East Coast crop, North Carolina winds don’t always blow you away. Midwestern winds are around 8 meters per second, while North Carolina winds range 5.5-6 meters per second.
But technology has evolved to meet this need.
Don Giecek talks mechanical advancement in lighter, longer blades and stronger foundations for height:
“The combination of being higher up and having a bigger windswept area, put those together and those are a couple of the significant reasons why wind resource, while at a previous time in the past might have thought to be not particularly strong, now it is clearly strong enough with these advancements to be profitable and to warrant the investment.”
Kellan Dickens of GE Renewable Energy promotes cutting edge smart farms.
“Part of the value of having a farm that can both predict and kind of adapt to changing wind environments is that it operates much better in lower wind conditions,” Dickens said.
He expects this to rise in the southeast in particular.
Other objections in North Carolina are the effects on agriculture, the military and wildlife.
“You can have a project that has 25, 30,000 acres as part of the project, but loses less than 50 acres out of ag production,” Montgomery said.
She has a lot of experience in shared usage. It also helps her with the other two mitigating factors.
“There’s a lot of minutiae in there that you have to get into to figure out the right site,” Montgomery said.
She said for the military, not every area of interest—recently claiming 80 of 100 counties—is completely off limits. And for animals, it is dependent on location and species.
“Wind has a low impact level on wildlife,” she said.
What is the current NC wind policy?
“For me, who’s responsible for spending money to take risks and develop projects, I’m not going to go to a place where it’s kind of like whack-a-mole. I wanna know I’m whacking something.” –Don Giecek, Apex Wind Energy, speaking in particular about House Bill 484 in the 2013 NC General Assembly session
Despite popular support for renewables in-state, and against claims of anti-renewable politicians, incentives are very low for wind energy now.
“We don’t get a red cent until we have invested—in the case of the Amazon Wind Farm US East, approximately $400 million—and began producing energy,” said Poff.
In fact, politics is not supporting wind energy—it is the only thing stopping it. Senate Bill 484, known as the Wind Bill, is the current enemy. Its proposed goal is to preserve military flight training spaces and bird habitats.
Montgomery said there are no longer issues of land, lack of a market or mitigating effects. She, like other panelists, disagreed that the bill was actually helpful to the military or wildlife.
“It comes down, legislatively, to this bill, this is the stop-gap,” Montgomery said.
“There is nothing in 484 that is additive but uncertainty,” added Poff. He also said that, regardless of politics, all the processes the bill claimed to regulate were already accounted for legislatively.
Legislation on the issue stays in flux, making investment and planning difficult.
What areas in the state are the best for wind energy?
“We don’t have a land issue. I can tell you that I personally have worked on over a hundred thousand acres of wind lease in this state with owners that are willing. We don’t have mitigation issues… It comes down to legislatively.” – April Montgomery, REAP
The coastal plain is for now NC’s biggest area of interest. But what about the mountains and the sea?
“[Smart wind farming] typically works better in ridge-line areas,” Dickens said.
Dickens said whether it can get there is another issue in itself.
Ridge-line laws, based on scenic preservation, prevent the construction of large turbines on mountains. It’s clear that southeastern communities are protective of appearance and wary of the change in job makeup
So what about off-shore capabilities?
Dickens said they are a whole other kind of industry.
The panel addressed it very briefly.
“If you go to the store and there’s two gallons of milk, one is twelve bucks and one is four bucks, which one are you gonna buy? That’s where the challenge is right now with offshore,” Poff said. “I mean, it is out-of-sight, out-of-mind, it’s politically expedient because you can be for wind energy, just, ‘Do it out there.’ But it doesn’t work in the market.”
How does wind energy stand up to solar?
“Wind has had a slightly more turbulent road than solar in this state.” – April Montgomery, REAP
With issues of mitigation and land seeming unsolved, solar seemed more popular for a while. Lazard saw this to be a trend despite the higher overall cost.
“The military is taking great pride over the years in growing to be an innovator,” Paul Friday of Marine Corps Installations East said. “Our emphasis has been in geothermal, solar, biofuel end of the equation on the renewable side. Wind has been a challenge for us.”
But for reasons explored previously, the way is getting paved faster. Certainly both are complementary.
Wind energy advocates do not see it as a contest.
“Wind energy doesn’t compete with solar. Wind energy competes with natural gas,” Poff said.