Locals around here call the flatlands west of Elizabeth City “The Desert.” What was once a swamp was drained by timber companies, and, finally, became farmland.
And it’s almost always windy, as farmer Horace Pritchard explains.
“If you can see and hear the wind right now, that’s the way the wind blows here 90 percent of the time,” he says.
The dirt road we’re standing on is often unusable when it rains. A few miles down it, Pritchard farms corn and soybeans. Now, he’ll also have something else sprouting from his 1,300 acres: Nine massive wind turbines.
For that, Iberdrola Renewables will pay him $54,000 per year. The company will pay sixty other landowners, as well. It’s part of a $400 million project in a part of the state unaccustomed to that kind of investment.
“This is an historic day for North Carolina,” said Governor Pat McCrory. “For several reasons. The first is this: This is continued proof that North Carolina is going to continue to participate in our country’s energy independence.”
The project will include more than 100 wind turbines spread out over 34 square miles in Pasquotank and Perquimans Counties. It is the first of its kind in North Carolina, and the first in the southeastern United States.
Amazon Web Services has already agreed to purchase all of the power generated by the wind farm.
“It’s huge,” said Steve Kalland, the executive director of the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center. “To have a project of this scale in the wind arena really helps to diversify the mix here and show that this state really is about supporting clean energy.”
Iberdrola began planning the facility back in 2009. The company set out to convince local lawmakers and landowners. Some were skeptical, but came around to support the project.
“It is such an honor for little ol’ Perquimans County to be a part of this endeavor,” said Janice McKenzie Cole, the chair of the Perquimans County Board of Commissioners. “To be able to say that we had the foresight to see that this was something that we wanted to be a part of.”
Despite the support of local lawmakers, it still took years of permitting and environmental studies. The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources had never before permitted a wind farm, and the going was slow.
As recently as a few weeks ago, the project appeared all but dead, after DENR officials attempted to proactively regulate the project based on a new state law. Iberdrola officials even told several people that they were scrapping the project, until McCrory stepped in, put his weight behind it and, according to sources, directed DENR to back off.
The Governor says this project stands as an example of how renewable-energy friendly policies like tax breaks and portfolio standards can work.
“I think what it proves is to get new energy resources started, we need those types of policies in place,” McCrory said after the groundbreaking. “But at the same time, there has to be a long-term plan where each will stand on its own.”
McCrory’s fellow Republicans in the General Assembly are currently trying to roll back many of those same policies that are designed to attract renewable-energy companies.
Supporters of renewable energy say there’s a reason that North Carolina is the only state in the southeast with a renewable energy portfolio standard – and is now the only state in the southeast with a large-scale wind farm.
“Those policies sent a clear signal, when we came to the state in 2009, that the state wanted to attract renewables,” said Craig Poff, the business development executive at Iberdrola who shepherded the project. “And we focused on North Carolina, for that specific purpose.”
When the first phase of the wind farm is up and running by the end of 2016, Iberdrola will immediately become the largest corporate taxpayer in these two counties – paying three times as much as the next highest company, even with the tax breaks they’ll get.
Along with the $1.1 million a year or so in local taxes the company will pay, Iberdrola will also build infrastructure, like paved roads.
And that will help farmers like Horace Pritchard turn The Desert into a better place to make a living.