Proposed wind farm creates tempest

Published 12:21 am Thursday, December 29, 2011

The two sides squaring off for battle create a bit of a conundrum: conservationists versus renewable energy executives. It would seem the two would be in firm agreement — weaning Americans from fossil fuels, preserving natural resources, doing little harm to the environment in the process. But what happens when executives from a proposed wind farm want to plant 49 wind turbines close enough to the Pungo Unit of the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a Duke University ecology professor and the Southern Environmental Law Center are weighing in on the subject?

Debate, and lots of it — which is why the proposed wind farm was rated the fifth-most important story of 2011 by the Washington Daily News in its coverage area.

In November, Invenergy, the Chicago-based parent company of Pantego Wind Energy LLC, sought approval from the N.C. Utilities Commission in Raleigh for a proposed project on 11,000 acres near Terra Ceia and Pantego. The 80-megawatt wind farm could generate enough electricity to power 15,000 homes, and that power would be shared via a Pantego substation with 12 eastern states and the District of Columbia.

In December, it was the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners’ turn to hear from supporters and opponents of the project. Supporters stressed the importance of a positive economic impact for Beaufort County — a potential of a combined $1 million per year from salaries, property tax revenue and lease payments to landowners. Detractors are primarily concerned about the negative impact on the wildlife of the region: so many migrating birds, like the tundra swan and the greater snow goose, that the National Audubon Society has designated the area an “Important Bird Area.”

Robert Scull, from New Bern and a member of the Cypress Group of the Sierra Club’s North Carolina chapter, said the group’s members would normally “be completely on the side” of a project that promises to supply energy from the wind.

“This was a difficult decision for our group because we like to support wind energy wherever possible,” Scull said. “But this is not a very good location.”

The company hopes to start construction on the project by the end of the next year. In the meantime, an environmental consulting company in Austin, Texas, Blanton and Associates, has been hired to study impact on the migratory birds in the area. The study will involve observation, determining bird population during the migratory phase of the year and how much of the birds’ movement would intersect with the wind turbines. According to representatives from Invenergy, the study will disclose the wind farm’s potential effects on where the migratory birds fly, as well as where they forage. The company also plans to initiate discussions about environmental impact with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the winter. The N.C. Utilities Commission is expected to rule on Pantego Wind Energy’s application in early 2012.

Betty Mitchell Gray contributed to this summary article on the Pantego wind farm.

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