RALEIGH — Despite initial concerns by the U.S. Navy that a massive wind farm near Elizabeth City will disrupt a sophisticated radar station located near the Virginia-North Carolina border, the $400 million project will proceed, and the Navy will have no recourse even if radar performance is disrupted.
After expressing serious concerns for several years about the interference the wind farm turbines might cause, the Department of Defense reversed its position in October 2014 and entered into an agreement citing a goal “to ensure that the robust development of renewable energy sources.”
Under the agreement, the Navy would “discuss strategies” with Iberdrola Renewables, the U.S. subsidiary of the Spanish company building the wind farm, should the installation adversely affect radar operations. The agreement, however, gives the Navy no option of terminating the project if the turbines compromise the radar facility’s effectiveness.
If the Navy detects an adverse impact from the operation of the turbines during the testing phase, the startup phase, or the operational phase, the parties will “confer with the assistance of a mutually acceptable technical expert” and discuss strategies likely to prevent problems.
The agreement also states that Iberdrola Renewables is not obligated to undertake any measures that it, by its sole discretion, “deems infeasible for any reason or no reason.”
Company officials estimate the project will cost $400 million and claim that it will receive no incentives or tax credits from the federal or state governments — which would make this wind farm unusual in that such projects typically qualify for substantial subsidies.
Iberdrola Renewables spokesman Art Sasse says the project, in Pasquotank and Perquimans counties, will get no incentives. “The total project cost is basically $400 million. There are no incentives at any level for the development of the project. We build this entirely on our own balance sheet,” he told Carolina Journal.
Since 2009, Iberdrola Renewables has been trying to develop a wind farm west of Elizabeth City. In July the company announced that it had an agreement with online retailer Amazon to buy power from the proposed project now named the Amazon Wind Farm.
The Relocatable Over-the-Horizon Radar receiving facility is located in Virginia at the Naval Support Activity Hampton Roads Northwest Annex, on the North Carolina border 17 miles north of Elizabeth City. The sophisticated radar receiver plays a key role in the military’s tracking of aircraft and ships suspected of transporting illegal drugs to the United States.
In June 2012, the government’s ROTHR Program Office released a study concluding that a large-scale wind farm should be located at least 28 miles from a ROTHR facility to prevent interference with the radar’s operation. The Navy released a map showing the “interference awareness area” in relation to the ROTHR receiving facility.
Two years later, military concerns remained. “We are working within the Department of Defense and with developers and stakeholders to develop potential mitigation solutions, but I have little confidence we will succeed,” Marine Gen. John Kelly told the House Armed Services Committee in February 2014. As commander of the United States Southern Command, Kelly oversees all military operations in Central and South America and the Caribbean. The radar system provides critical surveillance capability to support the Southern Command’s program to detect and monitor drug-smuggling aircraft and ships from Central and South America.
The Amazon Wind Farm covers approximately 20,000 acres. It begins about 14 miles from the ROTHR facility and stretches out to a point about 22 miles away. It is entirely within the 28-mile interference awareness area described in the 2012 study.
In August, Navy spokeswoman Katisha Draughn-Fraguada told CJ that new modeling by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology indicates the wind farm project interference will not reach the level that affects the radar system.
“It is not anticipated that the proposed 104 turbines will interfere with the radar system. The Navy coordinated with Iberdrola Renewables to ensure their proposal will not interfere with the ROTHR mission. The MIT modeling of this wind farm determined the acceptable number of turbines at the proposed distance from the ROTHR receive site to be 104 turbines for the specific turbine model proposed by the developer. Additional field measurements by MIT during and after completion of construction will be utilized to validate the modeling results,” she said.
According to the agreement, it is the objective of the Department of Defense “to ensure that the robust development of renewable energy sources and the increased resiliency of the commercial electrical grid may move forward in the United States, while minimizing or mitigating any adverse impacts on military operations and readiness.”
The agreement continues: “Modeling suggests that a potential conflict may exist between the Navy’s operation of the ROTHR and spinning turbines associated with the Wind Project.”
Iberdrola Renewables’ effort to develop a wind farm at this location began in 2009. The project came to a halt in late 2011 when three public utilities — Duke Energy, Dominion Energy, and Progress Energy ¬— said they would not purchase power from the facility because the rates Iberdrola would charge would be too high.
The electricity produced by the Amazon Wind Farm will be delivered to the electrical grid, and Amazon will take credit for it at data centers located in other states. The project is expected to be operational in late 2016.
The wind farm will include 104 turbine structures that are approximately 500 feet high. The company may add an additional 46 turbines later. Initially, the facility will be capable of generating 208 megawatts of electricity, with a possible total of 300 megawatts if the additional turbines are added.
“The Amazon Wind Farm takes a significant step toward diversifying North Carolina’s energy resources. Bringing onshore wind production to North Carolina is part of my ‘all of the above’ energy strategy. By diversifying our energy resources, we can provide affordable, reliable, and secure sources of energy that are environmentally clean and safe,” said Gov. Pat McCrory at the July groundbreaking ceremony.
A Raleigh News & Observer article published the same day pointed out that the project “won’t make a single watt of electricity for use by North Carolina businesses and households.” The article also pointed out the wind farm will not replace any traditional electricity generated from coal, natural gas, or nuclear facilities in North Carolina.
Don Carrington is executive editor of Carolina Journal.