Green energy advocates are aghast at the latest energy proposal in the state legislature to regulate wind farms and solar farms, a bill they say would turn North Carolina into the nation’s most hostile state for renewables.
The legislation, introduced last week by two Republican state senators, would impose a host of financial hurdles and safety precautions, in some instances stricter than North Carolina’s standards for coal-burning power plants and nuclear power plants.
One of the lawmakers who sponsored Senate Bill 843, Sen. Bill Cook of Beaufort County, said the more renewables projects proliferate, the more they prompt complaints about safety, appearance and adverse effects on property values that must be addressed in a comprehensive fashion.
Cook’s district includes Perquimans and Pasquotank counties, where a Spanish developer is now building the Amazon Wind Farm, the state’s first large-scale wind project.
“Numerous constituents have contacted me throughout Northeastern North Carolina with their concerns pertinent [to] the potential negative impacts,” Cook said by email. “It is obvious, that many people (due to view, sound, flicker, etc.) would choose NOT to buy a home where there are industrial wind turbines close by.”
The bill would require a wind farm or solar farm to be built at least a mile-and-a-half away from a neighboring property line. Even at that distance, a solar farm would have to be concealed behind a perimeter of hedges and native landscaping. A wind farm could not generate more than 35 decibels of noise, as measured from the neighboring property, which is equivalent to the volume of humans whispering.
Renewables advocates say it’s the most aggressive and sweeping attempt yet to undermine renewable energy in the state, building on momentum from last year’s elimination of a 35 percent state tax credit for renewable energy development.
“This bill is massive new regulation and essentially a ban on wind and solar in North Carolina,” said Brian O’Hara, who handles business strategy and government affairs for Chapel Hill-based Strata Solar, the state’s largest solar developer. “Under the permitting regime suggested by this bill, not a single solar farm developed in the state would have been built.”
Environmental advocates are hoping the bill will not find support in a Republican-controlled legislature that has resisted some efforts to block the renewables industry in the state.
Since 2013, for example, a handful of Republican lawmakers have persistently but unsuccessfully tried to repeal North Carolina’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, the 2007 law that’s driving the state’s solar energy revolution. That legislation has helped vault North Carolina to third place nationwide for total solar energy capacity.
Cook’s bill has been assigned to the Senate Rules and Operations Committee, generally regarded as a holding pen for bills that lack widespread support.
The legislation would have to win over lawmakers in rural districts whose constituents are leasing land for North Carolina’s latest cash crop: solar panels and wind turbines. Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady from Henderson County, who’s a former national president of the national Sierra Club, said this is not the bill to rally mass support: “I doubt it will receive a friendly reception in the House. I think most members would view this as controversial.”
In explaining why the legislation is necessary, Cook said he is alarmed about the subsidization of renewable energy through North Carolina’s 2007 energy law. Cook, a retired manager at the Potomac Electric Power Company in Washington, D.C., believes mandating renewables inflates electricity costs and stifles economic development by requiring utilities to pay extra for renewables and pass on the costs to customers.
The bill has generated disbelief from solar and wind developers in the past week because of its sweeping approach to regulating renewables. It covers energy farms but exempts biomass, hydroelectric power, solar water heaters and residential rooftop solar arrays.
Robin Smith, a former assistant state secretary of environment under Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, analyzed the bill on her environmental policy blog and concluded some of its requirements are unprecedented anywhere.
For example, the bill’s 1.5-mile setback proposal – amounting to a safety barrier of 7,920 feet – compares to 200 feet required in North Carolina for hazardous waste landfills, and 500 feet for swine waste lagoons, Smith noted.
Setbacks and buffers for power plants are not governed by state law here but left to local officials, said Duke Energy spokesman Randy Wheeless. Strata Solar has built more than 100 solar farms with setbacks typically less than 100 feet.
The legislation wouldn’t affect existing projects or those under development, including the Amazon Wind Farm under construction in the northeast corner of the state. The project was approved by local zoning officials for a setback distance of 738 feet from property lines and 1,230 feet from homes.
The 104-turbine project would not have been feasible under the proposed legislation. The bill’s setback distance would allow fewer than a dozen turbines, said Paul Copleman, spokesman for the Amazon Wind Farm’s developer, Iberdrola Renewables.
The bill would also require a solar farm or wind farm to guarantee millions of dollars – 15 percent of the value of the facility plus the underlying land – to cover future costs of decommissioning, or removing the energy project at the end of its lifetime.
The Amazon project will cost an estimated $400 million to build, and Iberdrola’s conditional use permit in Pasquotank County includes a requirement for a $1 million surety bond to cover decommissioning expenses. Under SB 843, the project could be required to set bonds for at least $40 million, Copleman estimated.
Copleman said the salvage value of the raw materials from the wind energy facility would exceed the cost of decommissioning the site.
The Amazon Wind Farm will not increase costs for state households and businesses, because the power it generates won’t be designated for North Carolina; instead, Amazon’s electricity will be transmitted north to power the online retailer’s data centers in Virginia.
The legislation would additionally require restoring a solar energy site or wind energy site to its original condition and recycling all equipment used in the renewable facility. Smith noted in her blog that state law allows demolition debris from a decommissioned power plant to be buried on site.
Smith concluded that SB 843 treats renewable energy “as a serious threat to public safety and the environment.”