Raleigh, N.C. — A compromise bill to overhaul solar policy in North Carolina is on its way to the governor. But critics say wind energy paid too high a price for the deal.
The deal was unveiled at around 12:30 a.m. Friday – the last day of the current legislative session – after days of tense negotiation between House and Senate leadership.
House leaders, including Speaker Tim Moore, strongly backed the original solar overhaul bill, the product of a stakeholder negotiation process that took 10 months to reach agreement. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, refused to allow the bill to proceed without adding a four-year moratorium on wind energy development in the state.
Brown, R-Onslow, said the timeout would allow a consultant to complete maps showing areas where wind turbines would interfere with military aircraft training.
The final deal includes an 18-month moratorium – through the end of 2018 – on issuing any state permits for wind farms. No exceptions are made for the Timbermill Wind and Alligator River wind projects currently in development.
The Department of Defense has repeatedly said the two projects would not conflict with flight training paths at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point. But Brown said he doesn't necessarily believe they wouldn't hurt the state in the next round of base closures and said the state needs to specify areas where wind development should be banned.
"People don't realize – the generals will tell me, off record – how important this is. They won't say it in public. It's the biggest threat to their bases of anything out there at this point," Brown told WRAL News early Friday.
Timbermill Wind and Alligator River are both in the district of Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, D-Northampton, totaling a $1 billion investment in one of the state's poorest regions. She had asked Brown to exempt them from the permit moratorium.
"This steals renewable energy in regards to wind, and it kills jobs that are needed in an economically distressed area," Smith-Ingram said of the final deal.
"It does not kill a single job. Every job with the projects you’re concerned about can move forward," countered Sen. Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, arguing that the permit process takes years to complete. "Neither one of these are at or near the point of submitting paperwork to [the state Department of Environmental Quality]."
But in the House, Minority Leader Darren Jackson said Timbermill Wind is ready now to file for a major state permit.
"We can vote not to concur in this conference report, and they can take the next month to figure it out," Jackson, D-Wake, urged.
Other Democrats argued that even the shorter 18-month moratorium would still be detrimental to the development of wind energy in the state.
"I’m told that one of the two companies is going to pull out if this moratorium occurs," said Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford. "We have a tremendous wind resource in our state, and I think this is the wrong signal to send."
Sponsor Rep. John Szoka, R-Cumberland, conceded that it wasn't the bill that left the House, but he said the solar provisions would still benefit utility customers, adding that "85 percent of something" is better than nothing.
The measure passed with large bipartisan margins in both the House and the Senate. It now goes to Gov. Roy Cooper, who will have 10 days to decide whether to sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature.