Not A Flight Risk: The Military & Wind Development in North Carolina
Updated: Sep 10, 2021
The state of North Carolina holds immense potential for wind energy, and particularly for offshore wind. A recent study reported that East Coast offshore wind capacity will exceed 40 gigawatts by 2035, and that North Carolina may reap more than $100 billion in market opportunities. The North Carolina Department of Commerce has created an offshore wind supply chain database to support wind manufacturers and developers considering the state. What's more, Governor Cooper recently issued Executive Order 218, reaffirming commitment to expanding offshore wind power and stating “responsible offshore wind energy development can coexist with North Carolina’s military installations without jeopardizing [the state’s] important military installations.” If the Order's goals are met, North Carolina will be poised to power 2.3 million homes with wind by 2040. These projects will not only create jobs and economic opportunities but will closer align our state with the 2019 NC Clean Energy Plan and Governor Cooper's Executive Order 80 on Climate and Clean Energy.
As things stand, the state only has one complete wind installation—the 208 MW Amazon onshore wind farm in Pasquotank and Perquimans counties. In 2014, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management identified three key offshore wind energy areas in NC: Kitty Hawk, Wilmington West, and Wilmington East. In December 2020, Avangrid Renewables, which also developed the Amazon farm, submitted Construction and Operations Plans to develop a 2.5 GW Kitty Hawk project beginning in 2024.
Given North Carolina’s history, the new wind policies and planned projects are major steps. Attempts to progress with both off- and onshore wind have long been fraught with turmoil. In 2017, key energy bill HB 589 passed with a last-minute addendum—an 18-month wind energy moratorium. To justify the ban, State Senator Harry Brown worked with engineering contractor AECOM to develop maps highlighting "significant risk" of offshore wind's impact on military training and operations. Though the study was completed in mid-2018, the results were never made public before the moratorium expired at the end of 2018. In 2019, Sen. Brown introduced a new bill to permanently prohibit the construction of wind farms in eastern North Carolina, again arguing the turbines would pose "vertical obstruction" to military training.
Supporters of wind energy development argued that the ban would be completely out of line with public acceptance surveys demonstrating general support around wind energy. What's more, it would have been out of line with the Department of Defense's stated support around renewable energy "where it is compatible with DoD's mission to test, train, and operate." In 2011, the DoD established a Siting Clearinghouse that allows military bases to review wind projects and permitting in advance, giving them a say in whether the projects need to be scaled back, altered, or relocated to meet military criteria. Overall, an outright ban on wind would have been a step in the wrong direction for North Carolina. The bill was scaled back from a permanent ban to a three-year moratorium, followed by another iteration in which the moratorium was ultimately discarded.
Now in 2021, military leaders continue to support wind development. The NC Department of Military & Veteran Affairs is on board with collaborating with Governor Cooper and other officials to support "continued coordination to help North Carolina meet its renewable energy goals while maintaining our military readiness and ensuring our national security.” Wind and other clean energy sources support energy independence, all while mitigating climate change—another big national security risk.
And yet still, impediments remain when it comes to wind. A 2013 state law (HB 484) set up the first statewide energy permitting process (issued via the Department of Environmental Quality) and prohibits any wind infrastructure taller than 600 feet without signoff from the Department of Defense. Though meant to serve as another protection against interference with military aircraft, this law has served to slow wind energy development. The Amazon wind farm was already under construction when the law went into effect, and was grandfathered in without having to undergo the permitting process. Two other wind projects have struggled to get off the ground, with one project abandoned and another, Timbermill Wind, having its permit initially denied by its home counties. After some changes, the local permit was approved; after more than five years, the project is advancing into state permitting. Timbermill is the first wind farm to go through the restrictive state permitting process.
Overall, building out wind in North Carolina has long been a tricky issue, fraught with impediments and opposition. But with military leaders actively voicing support for wind projects, most arguments against buildout are null and void. With the state's immense potential for driving a clean energy wind transition—not to mention the economic and environmental benefits that come along with it—holding back on wind should no longer be an option. Let's get North Carolina ahead of the curve on clean, prevalent wind energy generation.