PANTEGO — Eastern North Carolina residents don’t think they’re tilting at windmills as they press for a stringent environmental review of plans in Beaufort County to build 500-foot tall wind turbines near federal refuges that attract hundreds of thousands of geese and swans during the winter.
Some of the same groups and people who successfully fought Navy plans for a jet landing field in the general area four years ago are now focused on a proposed wind farm with 49 turbines on 11,000 acres near the small farming communities of Terra Ceia and Pantego. They say an array of turbines almost as tall as the Washington Monument will kill federally protected birds and bats or drive them away by altering foraging grounds.
Dr. Daniel deB. Richter Jr., a professor of soils and forest ecology at Duke University, says the project is “remarkably ill-sited” because of its proximity to Pocosin Lakes, Alligator River and Lake Mattamuskeet national wildlife refuges. Refuge lands and surrounding farm fields are winter havens for migratory waterfowl that fly from as far away as Canada and Alaska.
“A great project in the wrong place will be a bad project,” Richter said.
Pantego Wind Energy LLC, a subsidiary of Chicago-based Invenergy LLC, is seeking approval from the N.C. Utilities Commission to build an 80-megawatt wind farm that could generate enough electricity to serve about 15,000 houses. The commission is expected to render its decision in the next few weeks.
Company officials and supporters say the project would help utilities meet a state law requiring them to obtain a percentage of electricity from renewable sources. In addition, they say, the project would create 100 jobs and $10 million in local spending during construction. With a $160 million capital investment, it would generate $1 million in local revenue each year through property taxes, lease payments to landowners and salaries to five permanent employees.
Tom Thompson, Beaufort County’s economic development director, said the county needs the economic boost the project would bring. He said the wind project is very different from the Navy’s plans for an OLF, which drew strong opposition from county officials. A landing field would have been a year round operation and more hazardous to pilots and area residents, he said.
“Jets flying into birds is a big difference from birds flying into a windmill,” he said.
The county board of commissioners is scheduled to consider a resolution addressing the project at its March 12 meeting.
Highest Structures Around
The turbines, essentially towers with huge swirling blades attached to generators, are designed to catch wind blowing across the saucer-flat terrain about 20 miles east of Washington. They would be the highest structures for miles around, standing as tall as a 50-story building and looming over elevated water tanks, grain silos and fields of corn and wheat.
The utilities commission is considering a proposed order filed by the company, the commission’s public staff and the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, a non-profit organization that promotes renewable energy. The proposed order calls for approval of the project on the condition that it complies with environmental laws and regulations.
Before building turbines, the company would be required to prepare a bird and bat protection plan in consultation with federal wildlife agencies as well as a post-construction monitoring and management plan. The company would also have to file annual reports on the monitoring and management plan.
Paul Quinlan, managing director of the sustainable energy association, said his group supports the project with conditions for further studies because it would be the first large-scale wind farm in the state and would also diversify state energy resources. A proposed wind farm project near Elizabeth City was put on hold earlier this year after the project’s owners couldn’t find a utility willing to buy the power.
Benny Carowan, a Pantego area farmer, said he had no qualms about leasing a portion of his 1,000 acres for five wind turbines. He said lease payments will provide income and he will still be able to grow corn, wheat and soybeans in the flashing shadow of the blades.
Carowan said not all area farmers welcome waterfowl, especially tundra swans that yank their field crops out of the ground and compact the soil. He said the only downside he expected from having turbines near his home were momentary flashes of light from the blades in the morning and late afternoon.
“Wind farming is just a kind of farming,” he said.
On a sunny mild day recently, wind whipped across empty fields and a few turkey vultures and an occasional hawk soared overhead. But during winter months, some fields are covered with thousands of white snow geese and tundra swans that leave the refuges to forage. The swans, large birds with a 5 ½ foot wing span, and other birds are known to fly between roosting and foraging areas at night.
Howard Phillips, manager of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, said the wind farm could cause birds to lose foraging areas by avoiding sites and kill others that strike the turbine blades, especially at night. He said “detrimental impacts” to tundra swans are likely, and other migratory birds such as bald eagles might be affected. Deaths from blade strikes could be considered a violation of the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, he said. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which manages the refuges, wrote the utilities commission a letter objecting to the project.
Company officials say they will address concerns about birds and bats following a series of studies in the area before and after the wind turbines are built. According to testimony filed with the utilities commission, the studies will determine bat activity and proximity to the structures. The studies will also count the number of birds, monitor the movement of tundra swans, prepare maps of over-wintering waterfowl and determine if there are raptor nests in the area.
“There are very intense studies targeting the areas where the turbines are proposed,” said David Groberg, an Invenergy vice president in Rockville, Md.
He said the studies, which will be submitted to the commission, will provide sufficient information to deal with potential effects on waterfowl. He scoffed at suggestions that the project will avoid a complete environmental review, saying the company has an obligation to minimize impacts.
Critics: Studies Inadequate
But critics say the studies will be inadequate and a full environmental assessment should be completed.
Joe Albea, a Greenville writer and television producer who has extensively filmed and photographed waterfowl in the region, said there were fewer snow geese on the refuge this year, apparently because of the unusually mild winter. As many as 82,000 birds have been counted in the past, he said, but there were about 55,000 this year.
“They aren’t getting a true reading,” he said of the wind farm studies.
Albea, who vigorously opposed the Navy plans for an outlying landing field, said he was worried that if the initial wind project is approved additional foraging land would be lost later. “They are taking, incrementally, land away from the birds,” he said.
Doris Morris, another outspoken OLF activist, said a study of bird activity should cover at least three years to properly gauge feeding conditions when different crops are in the fields. In addition, she said, studying the flocks at night is crucial to understand how they move from one area to another.
Morris sees parallels in the wind farm project and the Navy’s attempt to acquire 30,000 acres for jets to practice aircraft carrier landings. She said the Navy and Invenergy contended they could overcome any problems posed by the birds after they finished the projects.
Larry Hodges of Friends of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife National Refuge, a private support group, worries that if the wind farm deters waterfowl from coming to the area the Navy may eventually want to make another attempt to use the land for an OLF. “That’s the scary part,” he said.