Amazon backs NC’s 1st large-scale wind farm

Source: BY JOHN MURAWSKI, The News & Observer • Posted: Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The world’s largest developer of wind-energy farms has teamed up with online retail giant Amazon to build a major wind farm in coastal North Carolina.

Amazon, which is building a network of wind farms and also testing Tesla storage batteries, announced the project Monday. The Amazon Wind Farm US East, to be built in Perquimans and Pasquotank counties, will power the online retailer’s cloud-computing division, Amazon Web Services, as part of a corporate goal of achieving energy sustainability.

The sprawling 34-square-mile wind farm will start with 104 turbine spires rising from the state’s eastern flatlands. The $400 million energy project will be built by Spanish wind farm developer Iberdrola Renewables and will start generating electricity for Amazon’s data centers in late 2016.

North Carolina is considered to have some of the East Coast’s best wind resources, but the state has proven notoriously difficult for developing a commercial wind farm. The Amazon project has managed to avoid the conflicts that have sunk proposed wind farms in the past: widespread opposition in tourist areas, interference with military flight paths and the potential for bird kills in seasonal migration routes.

“North Carolina has been, if anything, slow to react to its opportunities,” said Stephen Kalland, executive director of the N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center. “I’m just so thrilled we have managed to weave our way through the complexities.”

Iberdrola’s project is planned for agricultural scrubland locally known as The Desert, an isolated area with no homes that’s about 15 miles from Albermarle Sound and about 30 miles from the coast, said Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman. The 208-megawatt energy project required a federal wetlands permit, five stormwater permits, eight soil-erosion and sedimentation permits, as well as acoustic studies concerning bats and Doppler radar studies on migrating birds.

“This is 22,000 acres of corn, soybean, some wheat and some forest,” Copleman said. “We worked with a lot of agencies and entities that asked us a lot of tough questions.”

The wind-energy project required years of engineering studies and wind tests, but the capstone – securing a long-term contract to sell the electricity – remained a closely guarded secret until Monday. With the construction of the Amazon wind farm that will supply power outside the state, North Carolina is marking a transition from a state that has been almost exclusively an energy importer of coal, natural gas and uranium.

More than 60 property owners will be paid for hosting access roads and turbines on their land, Copleman said. The payout for hosting each turbine will be $6,000 a year in the first year, a total of $624,000 to all property owners, and increasing in subsequent years.

One of those landowners is Horace Pritchard, 66, owner of a 1,300-acre corn, soybean and wheat farm that will host nine turbines in exchange for $54,000 in the first year.

“The wind is a cash crop to us,” Pritchard said. “It’s the best way for us to diversify.”

Iberdrola, which has shepherded the project, said it will pay $520,000 in local property taxes in both counties in the first year, with the payments to increase over time. In Pasquotank County, for example, Iberdrola will pay about $5,000 in taxes per turbine in the first year, going up to more than $8,000 per turbine over 30 years. The company will get a 94 percent tax rebate in the first year and a projected 25 percent discount after 15 years.

“It’s a huge reduction, but they instantly become the largest taxpayer in both counties,” said Wayne Harris, director of the Elizabeth City and Pasquotank County Economic Development Commission.

“It’s like a windfall for us,” Harris said. “They’re putting no strain on services… and the farmers can still farm.”

The Amazon wind farm will have 10 full-time employees to manage and maintain the project. About 250 workers will be involved in the construction phase.

Iberdrola spent years testing wind resources in Eastern North Carolina, deploying nine anemometers and one laser sonar device. The firm will use recently developed turbines designed to maximize power output in low-wind areas and that will tower 492 feet high at the farthest extension of the blade.

According to wind resource studies, the Amazon wind farm area produces winds that blow at about 5 meters per second, well below Midwestern wind speeds of 8 to 10 meters per second.

“Five or 10 years ago, North Carolina was not registering on these maps or barely registering at all,” Copleman said. “This project is able to take advantage of continuing improvements in technology.”

Iberdrola Renewables, the U.S. division of the Spanish corporate parent, owns or controls more than 6,000 megawatts of wind power in the United States. By way of comparison, a typical nuclear plant has a capacity ranging from 1,000 megawatts to 1,500 megawatts, but nuclear energy runs round-the-clock and does not depend on the weather.

At the time Iberdrola began exploring Eastern North Carolina for a potential wind farm in 2009, the company was proposing a 300-megawatt project with 150 turbines, which then would have been among the largest in the country. In the intervening time, wind-power prices have dropped and giant wind farms have proliferated, with a 946-megawatt project in California now the nation’s biggest to date.

Electricity generated by an onshore wind farm now is comparable in price to deriving electricity from a natural-gas power plant, according to estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Iberdrola still is hoping to build the full 300-megawatt project here but first will collect data to determine if the planned extension of the wind farm would interfere with a U.S. military radar system in Virginia, Copleman said.