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North Carolina Onshore Wind Development: Look Before You Leap (Part II)

[Editor Note: Part I by Mr. Droz examined North Carolina's proposed offshore wind power development.]

As a citizen of North Carolina and someone with a modicum of energy knowledge, I am particularly interested in how the state is going to handle the approval process of its first industrial wind project (now about two-third’s along).

My ongoing investigation has involved speaking and/or corresponding with about two dozen key state agency people. Most were cooperative and helpful and readily acknowledged that this was new to them. I was appreciative of the fact that most also expressed an interest in being more involved with wind energy approval; but it always came back to the fact that North Carolina has no law that mandated their participation or spelled out their wind energy assessment responsibility.

My experience might be helpful to others given the similarities between North Caroline and other states and provinces. Given the growing grassroots scrutiny of industrial wind projects because of their taxpayer/ratepayer dependency and heavy environmental impact, we all need to share our experiences.

“Desert Wind” Project

Desert Wind” is a wind energy project proposed for the Elizabeth City area of northeastern North Carolina (NC). This is the first industrial wind project in the state, and it has been projected to be one of the largest in the United States.

The driving forces behind Desert Wind are the state’s Renewable Energy Standard, lucrative federal/state financial incentives, and very permissive approval conditions. This article is about the last situation.

Throughout the process of approving this industrial complex, and then overseeing its operation, the fundamental questions are: How is the state protecting the rights of its citizens, protecting wildlife, and the environment?

The answer is that (partly due to this being the first such project) that the state was not (and is not) prepared to adequately provide any of these protections.

One would think that when a NC community is approached about hosting such an industrial project, that they should be able to go to some NC agency and would be provided with comprehensive, objective, and balanced information about the pros and cons of such developments. The community could then get accurately educated about this highly technical matter, and then come to their own conclusions as to whether or not it is beneficial for them. Unfortunately, at this time there is no such information available from any NC agency.

In fact the only state agencies that do provide information, are effectively agents of the developer, as their contributions are essentially a repetition of what the developer’s advertisements say. What’s worse is that although these state agencies have no hesitancy to pass on the developer’s claims, not a single agency has taken the initiative to get any of these claims to be legally guaranteed. As a result, communities are entirely on their own regarding getting a balanced assessment. Considering the complexity involved plus the pressure that the developer exerts on the community to expedite things (or else they will go to friendlier confines), almost no meaningful protections are enacted.

Some citizens have the mistaken idea that if the developer is “approved” that this in an indication that a thorough assessment has been conducted. Unfortunately that is not even remotely true. “Approval” of a developer merely means that the existing rules have been met. The deficiency here is that there is no NC wind development approval procedure. Instead they have to pass generic rules that apply to any business — and none of these were designed to address the intricacies of wind energy development. There are many examples, but let’s take just three.

Example One: Human Health

The first is human health. The fact is that there is no NC agency that has the responsibility to assess human health impacts of industrial wind development, as part of the normal approval process. This is particularly troubling as there have been hundreds of studies, reports, and articles about the adverse human health impacts that can result (and have resulted) from such industrial development. Many of these have been written by independent PhDs and MDs.

So though there are several agencies automatically included that are obliged to assess wind energy impacts on wildlife, there is no part of the “approval” process that requires any objective assessment of human health impacts. Clearly this is a major oversight, that needs to be immediately addressed.

Example Two: Economics

A second example that is instructive is the economic impacts. When a developer is romancing a community, the major focus of their pitch is economics. But is there more that one side to this complex matter? Indeed there is. The NC Department of Commerce would be the most applicable economic agency, and their website says “The department’s mission is to improve the economic well-being and quality of life for all North Carolinians”.

Well that sounds great, but is that what is happening here, with wind energy? In the Desert Wind case, the Department of Commerce was solicited for help by the affected communities. When it came to these communities, it was an unabashed facilitator of the project, including providing them with a glowing report.

Additionally the Department of Commerce took it upon itself to testify at the NC Utilities Commission public hearing, again as a promoter of this project. (See p 7+.) So, considering their mission statement, was there anything in their public statements (or report) about “quality of life for all North Carolinians” (e.g. some of the aforementioned health effects that will come with this project)? No.

Okay, let’s say that their sole concern is economics. As citizens we would expect that our state agency would do a balanced assessment of ALL the economic impacts of such a project. Unfortunately no such evaluation was done by the NC Department of Commerce, as only the possible positives came from them — even though their report is titled “Economic Impact Analysis – Wind Energy”. With such a title, wouldn’t one assume that this addresses ALL economic impacts? Anyone with that expectation would be sorely disappointed.

To their credit, in their report the NC Department of Commerce did acknowledge that “it is important to know this project analysis is not comprehensive and does not consider… all costs associated with the project… concerns regarding visual and noise pollution as a result of wind turbines, as well as other costs are not within the scope of this project.” Put in plain English, not a single detrimental economic aspect was considered. How helpful is such a one-sided report? Are there economic downsides? Absolutely.

Here is just one of several: agricultural loss. A study by four world-class experts concluded that there can be significant agricultural losses due to bats being killed by wind turbines. Interestingly they provided a calculation for every county in the US. Their conclusion was that the two counties involved with Desert Wind could have as much as a $24 Million dollar annual agricultural loss due to bat deaths! There are many other studies that show other economic losses, but none of these were mentioned by the NC Department of Commerce. Communities need accurate, balanced information to make such important decisions on.

The NC Department of Commerce’s report also acknowledges that almost all of their information (e.g. about investments and jobs) came directly from the developer. Since the Elizabeth City community was basing their decision almost entirely on the economics, and was largely depending on the NC Department of Commerce’s economic assessment, it would seem that the Department would have taken a more objective position here. For example, an additional conclusion of the report should have been: “To assure the validity of the developer’s economic claims, the community should get the developer to guarantee its claims in writing.” Even better yet would have been for the NC Department of Commerce to use their considerable influence to arrange this guarantee directly with the developer.

Unfortunately the Department made no such recommendation and took no such action — both of which would seem to be mandated by “The department’s mission is to improve the economic well-being and quality of life for all North Carolinians.” The Department did make two worthy observations in their report’s conclusions (p 4&5) stating:

1) “Nearly all of the $750 million in upfront investment will be with firms located outside North Carolina,” and

2) “The employment impacts for a project with this much initial investment is small.”

For some reason there wasn’t any publicity about either of these key findings — and neither one of them made it into the Department of Commerce’s inputs to the NC Utilities Commission. In fact the exact testimony of the Department of Commerce’s representative was: “We did an economic study back in May of 2010 and I’ll just share some of those figures with you. The project is going to be about $750 million. It will be the largest single initial investment by a company in northeast NC ever.” (See p 7+.)

Note that there was not a word that (according to their own report) almost none of that $750 million will be spent in North Carolina, or the fact that almost everything in their study came from the developer, or that none of the developer’s claims were guaranteed in any way. In an amazing display of chutzpah, when the developer testified (see p 42) later about the economic impacts to North Carolina, to give his claims the appearance of some validity he cited the Department of Commerce report! Yes, the very report that was fabricated almost entirely from information provided by the same developer.

Third Example: Public Intervention

The third example is the fact that North Carolinians have what is called the “Public Staff” division of the Utilities Commission. As the name indicates, these civil servants are primarily employed to intervene on behalf of the citizens of the state regarding utility matters.

Well in the case of Desert Wind, there were two people from the Public Staff that testified. In representing the interests of the citizens of North Carolina, neither one of them could find as much as a single word to say that was remotely negative — despite the fact that there are literally thousands of studies, reports and articles in the public domain about problems with wind energy!

Clearly, balance is needed by reaching out to the victims of a such a massive, ratepayer- and taxpayer-dependent project.

Conclusion

But let’s be perfectly clear here: this is not an anti-wind commentary. Rather it is a request for the state to have comprehensive, accurate, balanced information available to NC citizens, and for state agencies to take a balanced position on such technical matters, rather than being shameless advocates.

Neither of these requests are unreasonable considering that communities being solicited by wind developers are being asked to make a 20± year commitment to these industrial projects.

—————–

Note: For a scientific explanation of wind energy see EnergyPresentation.Info.

7 comments

1 Bill Batt { 06.27.11 at 4:48 pm }

Elizabeth City is being asked to make a twenty year commitment to wind turbines that have a fifteen year lifetime. (see California’s defunct wind turbine farms.) The people will be paying on the debt for thirty years minimum with no payback.

2 Tauna Christensen { 06.27.11 at 10:19 pm }

Very interesting article.

In Idaho, our governor is a promoter of private property rights. He views wind development as a local control issue . We do not have any state oversight on wind development. It is left up to each individual county.

The last wind project that went before my county, the planning and zoning board told the opponents that we presented a lot of “folklore”. My position is one of real science. Science is a process. The core process is the Scientific Method which consists of a hypothesis (for instance, does it make sense to try to replace our fossil fuel sources with wind energy) being subjected to a comprehensive, independent, transparent and empirical assessment. I knew the reports, AWEA CanWEA report “Wind Turbine Sound and Health Effects: An Expert Panel Review” and “2009 Wind Technologies Market Report,” which the proponents presented to the county P&Z board (and which the P&Z board placed a lot of weight on) were not true scientific assessments— i.e. that follow the principles of the Scientific Method. As opponents, we could have turned the table around on the P&Z board and just as easily called these reports from the proponents “folklore” as well.

3 James C { 06.30.11 at 12:09 pm }

While being an advocate for the “scientific method”, Mr. Droz seems to talking out of both sides of his mouth. Mr. Droz should identify those peer-reviewed, scientific studies that link wind energy to health effects…oh, that’s right, there are only self-selected, small scale, anecdotal studies.

On the subject of economic impacts, Mr. Droz breathlessly touts a $24M. But if you actually read the study, the impact suggested by the authors is $74/acre. News report indicates that the project will disturb about 200-300 acres which would be $22,200. Mr. Droz, you’re off by a couple decimal places…

With regard to the NCUC Public Staff, maybe Mr. Droz should look at the specifics of the Desert Wind project rather than drawing broad conculsions. Is it possible that this project which is located on land that is so intensively farmed it is devoid of wildlife and people/homes that there are few/inconsequential negative impacts other than visual impacts? Maybe this particular project is in a location that is ideal.

While Mr. Droz goes out of his way to state “this is not an anti-wind commentary”, then what is it? You can put lipstick on a pig…but it’s still a pig.

4 John Droz { 06.30.11 at 6:44 pm }

James:

Thank you for expressing your opinion.

Yes I am an advocate of science-based solutions. Not sure of your scientific background, but the responsibility to provide scientific proof is 100% the obligation of the proponents. This has not been done. It is not my (or any other citizen’s) obligation to disprove wind lobbyists claims.

Oh, and “peer-review” does not mean “more accurate.” Peer-review is a crude means of discovering the acceptability — not the validity — of a new finding.

But if you don’t care, then yes there are several “peer-review” studies about the adverse effects of industrial wind energy. For example, check out the recently released Møller/Pederson acoustic study.

Evidently you did not read the article I referenced on the effects of bats on agriculture. The four world-class expert authors also provided an Excel spreadsheet that calculated the potential loss for each and every county in the US. I merely repeated their figure for the two counties involved here.

You seem to be laboring under the misunderstanding that the effect of dead bats magically stops at the boundaries of the wind project. All in all, if you don’t like the conclusions of these independent experts, feel free to contact the authors. (Please cc me.)

Again, if you carefully read this piece, my concern is about inadequate METHODOLOGY for approving industrial development in NC. Something had to be used as an example, and wind was selected as it it proved the point I was making: the process is inherently flawed.

5 James C { 07.01.11 at 12:58 pm }

John,

Anyone who requires the scientific method should be prepared to defend their views by the same means. The fact remains that the only health effect scientifically linked to wind turbines is annoyance and many believe that annoyance is a behavior of choice.

I did read the bat study and I’m sure that the authors would not agree with your application of the figures. You simply took them out of context.

Finally, this project appears to be welcomed by the community. Since it takes many landowners to host a wind project and they all do so of their own choice, who are you to try to add unnecessary complexity and cost and deprive them of income. Those counties created ordinances, held hearings and decided to approve the projects. What’s wrong with local officials determining the merits of the project? Are you suggesting that they are incapable of knowing what’s right for their community?

6 John Droz { 07.06.11 at 6:31 am }

James:

1 – Again, I do not set how science works. The established procedure for ascertaining the validity of hypothesis (e.g. that wind energy is a cost-beneficial solution) rests 100% on the backs of the promoters.

It is not my obligation (or anyone else’s) to disprove their hypothesis.

2 – Your statement about health effects it totally in error.

3 – Your statement about bats is likewise erroneous. I have communicated with an author of this study and he is in full agreement to what I have said.

4 – You are likely correct that many in the community have welcomed this project. In my view this is primarily because they are not aware of the implications of this development.

5 – I have heard directly from local representatives, and they acknowledged that they did NOT understand the intricacies with wind development. As such they are indeed incapable for adequately representing their constituents in this complex matter.

6 – It’s interesting that your interpretation of verifying that there are no adverse human health and safety impacts is translated as “unnecessary complexity and cost”. Evidently our priorities are different.

7 Al Fin { 07.09.11 at 12:15 pm }

James C. appears to be taking all of this rather personally, as if he had a personal stake in these proceedings somehow. I don’t know why.

Backers of big wind projects — big wind developers, government-affiliated wind enthusiasts, and green lobbying organisations — have never been there after the fact, when great fields and hills of rusting , nonfunctioning wind turbines despoil the landscape. I don’t know why.

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