“Once you see, hear and feel these machines, and are able to get a sense of how well they integrate into an agricultural landscape, it is hard to have too much negative to say,” Kollins said.
In the case of these legislators, she turned out to be right. After the tour, House Speaker Tim Moore released a statement saying the wind farm “takes advantage of a valuable natural resource our state has to offer.”
It has been a long, uphill battle for wind energy proponents in states like North Carolina. Across the country, wind energy is growing rapidly, surpassing hydropower dams as the largest source of renewable energy in the country. By the end of 2016, the wind industry supported more than 100,000 jobs. But the Southeast has almost completely been left out of that boom. State lawmakers and utility companies have been reluctant to break from fossil fuels, technological advancements have been slow, and the geography of the region is not entirely conducive to large-scale wind.
The new North Carolina wind farm could signal a shift for the region. Despite heavy opposition and campaigns against renewable energy in the state, developers successfully fought for approval to build the $400 million Amazon wind farm. Now, other wind farms are in the works in nearby states, including Virginia.
“Wind is coming to the Southeast,” said Steve Kalland, director of the Clean Energy Technology Center at North Carolina State University. “As utility business models continue to evolve to be more accommodating to renewables and more areas in Southeast are open to it, it’s pretty much inevitable.”
Wind generated 5.5 percent of electricity in the U.S. last year and is on track to supply 10 percent by 2020, according to a recent report from the American Wind Energy Association. Fourteen states generated at least 10 percent of their power from wind, largely in the Midwest and Plains states. Last year, the only Southeastern state producing wind power was Tennessee, where wind made up 0.1 percent of electricity production.
With its new project, North Carolina became the 41st state to generate wind energy, and the second in the Southeast.
The Amazon wind farm sprawls across 22,000 acres of privately owned farmland in eastern North Carolina. It has been in the works for nearly eight years, with Republican lawmakers and the state’s powerful utilities fighting the project at nearly every step by making the permitting processes more cumbersome and introducing legislation to outright ban wind energy while the farm was being built.
The Navy repeatedly said the wind farm was not a problem, local communities supported it, and renewable energy advocates like the Southeastern Wind Coalition lobbied against these measures. Farmers and other residents of Pasquotank County, where the farm is located, voiced their support for the farm for years, and the Elizabeth City Economic Development Commission released an official statement of support when the lawmakers penned their letter to Trump. Developers report it has the potential to power 61,000 homes and will supply power to an electrical grid that serves Amazon’s data centers.
At the end of March, however, state lawmakers introduced a bill that would place a three-year moratorium on wind energy development to study the safety risks of wind farms near military bases.
A similar storyline is playing out in many Southeastern states. But even with the resistance to renewable energy, wind production is poised to grow as technology improves and costs fall.
Even so, the Southeast has a long way to go. The attachment to coal—geographically culturally, and economically—is a major barrier to renewable energy. Major utility monopolies like Duke Energy in North Carolina and Dominion Power in Virginia are still reliant on the fossil fuel industry, and unless they deregulate their markets—which no Southeastern state has done yet—they would have to choose to choose to diversify their energy portfolio with renewables.
Local and state lawmakers across the region, lobbied and supported by those utilities and other fossil fuel interests, have continually pushed against clean energy.
It’s largely up to renewable energy advocates like the Southeast Wind Coalition to push for these projects one at a time, starting at the local level. From touting the economic benefits of wind farms, to educating people about legislation, to literally walking lawmakers through a wind farm, it is a long process.
“We’ve got technology to make wind economically viable in the Southeast, so it’s a matter of policy,” Kollins said. “Having the opportunity for lawmakers and utilities in Southeast to see [the Amazon wind farm] firsthand can dispel a lot of potential myths.”