In energy bill, Cooper faces dilemma with wind farm pause
By GARY D. ROBERTSON
Jul. 15, 2017
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Energy legislation on North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper's desk presents him with a decision that could force him to choose between buttressing the state's bright solar industry and nurturing its nascent wind power business.
The legislation could make solar power production more competitive, and less expensive for Charlotte-based Duke Energy and its customers. Cooper, a Democrat, strongly supported the version that passed the House containing carefully-crafted language hammered out over several months by the nation's largest electric utility, retailers and renewable energy boosters.
But Senate Republicans added a 3½-year moratorium on state permits for wind energy projects. They said it would give time to chart acreage where wind turbines hundreds of feet tall should be prohibited for fear of interference with aircraft training from eastern North Carolina military bases. Poorly-sited projects could add to reasons why the Pentagon may scale back its presence, including jobs, in the state.
A compromise with a moratorium through the end of 2018 passed just before the General Assembly adjourned June 30. Cooper has until July 30 to consider the proposal, along with 110 other bills lawmakers left him before leaving Raleigh. If the energy bill becomes law, developers for proposed wind farms in Tyrrell County and in Perquimans and Chowan counties have suggested their projects will halt.
Lawmakers "haven't made it easy with the addition of this wind moratorium," Cooper told reporters last week, "because you're essentially trying to pit renewables against each other. Renewable energy is good for North Carolina, it's positive for our economy and we need to be encouraging it, not discouraging it."
The final House vote, with more than a dozen Republicans voting no and a dozen other members absent, suggests a veto of the bill could be upheld when legislators return in early August. The governor can also let a bill become law without his signature.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, the moratorium author, said Cooper should sign the measure. Representing the home of Camp Lejeune, Brown said state officials should make the military the priority.
The bill directs a consulting group to complete maps that Brown says will make clear where wind projects won't encroach on the military.
"It should give certainty to all of us of where it's OK to build and where it's not," Brown said.
The Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Defense already can step in and require changes when high turbines could get in the way. The military hasn't expressed any opposition publicly to the Chowan-Perquimans or Tyrrell wind farms. The $500 million in combined investments, along with local tax revenue and jobs, are being needlessly threatened, project executives said.
"It's unfortunate that a small number of elected officials were able to hijack what should have been a bright moment for clean energy in North Carolina," said Mark Goodwin, CEO of Apex Clean Energy, which is developing the Chowan-Perquimans project. He said the company "will almost certainly have to suspend" the project if it becomes law.
Brown said he believes wind project executives are bluffing and the moratorium isn't long given that these turbines will turn for decades. The only large wind project currently online in North Carolina is near Elizabeth City, for Amazon to operate its Virginia data centers.
Cooper said he would talk to representatives of Duke Energy, the military and wind energy advocates as he deliberates.
Duke Energy estimates the legislation could result in $850 million in savings for customers over 10 years, as solar energy purchased through a competitive procurement process and incentives are created to use and produce it.
"The positive solar aspects of the bill are hard to ignore," Duke spokesman Randy Wheeless said in a statement.
The North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, which championed the original House measure, is unhappy with the final bill. The association hasn't said what it thinks Cooper should do.
"We feel we are stuck between a rock and a hard place on this," spokeswoman Allison Eckley wrote in an email.