North Carolina Harnesses Gusts of Support with Region’s First Turbine Farm

amazon-turbine-farm
Amber Plante for Zondits, July 23, 2015. Image credit: inspiredimages

Amazon.com Inc.’s decision to have a North Carolina wind farm fuel its cloud services data centers is nearly poetic for the company whose customers have been clamoring for more renewable energy operations. It’s also a boon for the region: the Amazon Wind Farm US East, powered by Iberdrola Renewables at Desert Wind, is part of a $400 million project and the first of its kind not only in the state but in the southeastern United States.

The first phase of the project, built over Pasquotank and Perquimans counties in an area of North Carolina known for its swamp-converted farmlands and near-constant gales, features the possible generation of 208 MW using 104 wind turbines spread across multiple farms. It is set to be completed in 2016, and Amazon.com has already agreed to purchase all of the energy generated by the farm. The full facility, if it is built out, would produce 300 MW of electricity using 150 deployed wind turbines spread over 34 square miles.

Wind farms are cropping up around the US as energy efficiency and independence gain traction. According to the American Wind Energy Association, the US is now capable of producing nearly 62,000 MW of wind energy per year. As of the end of 2014 (the last time comprehensive data was studied), the US boasts more than 48,000 operating utility-scale wind farms that could collectively power more than 18 million homes, and estimates say that 73,000 more wind farms are in development for deployment in the next few years.

The South – North Carolina, in particular – is unaccustomed not only to renewables but the $400 million budget commitment being made to the project. In the Wind Energy Foundation’s 2014 list of the top states with wind power capacity, North Carolina doesn’t even come close: Texas generates 12,753 MW/year, California generates 5,829 MW/year, and Iowa rounds out the top three with 5,177 MW/year. These numbers represent an investment of $120 billion in wind energy.

Regardless of the necessary upfront monetary and time commitments, though, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory is confident that the benefits of the state’s wind farm will far outweigh the hefty price tag. “This is an historic day for North Carolina, for several reasons,” he said at the groundbreaking ceremony in nearby Elizabeth City earlier this month. “This is continued proof that North Carolina is going to continue to participate in our country’s energy independence.”

The wind farm will also buffer the local community. According to Iberdrola, “The total of landowner payments and taxes for the first phase of the project will inject more than $1.1 million into the local economy each year. About 250 construction jobs will support the 18-month building period, and 10 permanent jobs will be based at the wind farm when it is in full operation, anticipated for the fourth quarter of 2016.”

The company is also making its own contributions to the region: When the facility is fully built and running, Iberdrola will pay $1.1 million in taxes in the two counties, making it the largest taxpayer in the counties by at least 300%, despite the tax breaks it will receive for green energy improvements. In an effort to further its goodwill in the region, the company will also pave roads to help build a better infrastructure.

Of course, not all communities around the country are swept off their feet by wind energy. The Cape Wind Project, an approved offshore wind farm that would theoretically be located in the strip of sea known as Nantucket Sound off the coast of Massachusetts’s Cape Cod, has hit nothing but headwinds as it has tried and tried again to get off the ground.

The 14-year-old project, which planned to build 130 wind turbines across 24 square miles of seascape in Horseshoe Shoal, has been declared “dead in the water” by vocal opponents after local utilities Eversource Energy and National Grid pulled their commitments to buy 77% of the power generated by the farm after the project missed a December 2014 deadline. Opponents cite threats to sea life, groundwater, historical sites, the local economy, and even public safety. However, Cape Wind still holds 28-year leases issued by the federal government for 48 square miles of seabed in the sound.

Regardless of the happiness-versus-opposition debate, it’s clear from the national statistics that wind energy is here to stay. The trick remains how to harness this natural energy and turn it into a sustainable power source that benefits the environment and public at a cost that makes sense for everyone. Iberdrola, it seems, is coasting on the zephyrs of this success in North Carolina.