RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Large portions of North Carolina would be off limits to wind-energy operations in legislation given tentative approval Thursday, backed by supporters who argue it will help preserve the state's prominent military presence by keeping flight training areas clear.
The measure also would set up additional state regulatory hurdles before a company could build a wind farm with turbines stretching at least 200 feet tall. The state military and health departments also would be asked to weigh in before the Department of Environmental Quality, tasked with permitting sites since 2013, makes a decision. Federal permitting already is required.
Proposed areas where construction would be prohibited, described on a map prepared for a state military commission, would cover wide swaths of central and eastern North Carolina where low-flying military jets and helicopters travel.
Placing tall turbines within those flight paths could give military commanders reasons for shifting key air units to other states. North Carolina has the fourth largest military population in the country, supporting 578,000 jobs, a majority of which are in the private sector.
"This is an important bill to our economy. It's an important bill to our military," said Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, a bill author. "We want to protect our bases as much as possible."
A wind farm under construction in Perquimans County wouldn't be affected if the current legislation became law, but it appears two proposed facilities — one between Edenton and Hertford and another in Tyrrell County — would be subject to the new restrictions and could be sunk.
Democrats have urged Brown to find a way to exempt those two projects, which could bring $700 million in combined investments as well as revenues for landowners and local tax coffers. Amendments are possible before a scheduled final Senate vote early next week.
Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, D-Northampton, said she supports preserving the military aerial training areas but urged colleagues to not forget high-poverty areas in eastern North Carolina that would benefit tremendously from the pending projects.
"We must continue always to position ourselves to protect our installations," said Sen. Don Davis, D-Greene, a former Air Force officer, but we must "continue to look for ways to support the development of renewable energy."
Brown, however, didn't appear to have much sympathy for organizers of the pending projects, saying the industry should have known that a map was being drawn. Industry representatives argue the federal government has different training maps that will make siting a wind farm even more difficult.
Sen. Ron Rabin, R-Harnett, a retired Army colonel, said the defense of the nation must take precedence during these times.
"I understand the economics. I understand the need for the business," Rabin said, but "you can't train for war without training ground."
The bill, if given final Senate approval, would go to the House, which approved a separate regulatory overhaul bill Thursday that would only direct a study of military criteria that could be used in evaluating wind-energy projects.
The votes came a day after an administrative law judge dismissed a legal challenge to the Perquimans County project, which will provide power to Amazon's data centers in Virginia.
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