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Pamlico County Wind Farm Project's Possible Impact on Cherry Point


This week on the Down East Journal, we explore the controversy over proposed wind energy turbines possibly interfering with Cherry Point base operations. Some say the wind projects planned for Pamlico and Beaufort counties may play into possible BRAC base closures.

From heating our homes to charging our cell phones we use energy now more than ever. This increased reliance has created a push in our state to switch to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly ways of producing power. This month, Duke Energy completed a large, 12.5-megawatt solar project in Beaufort County and is planning to build another solar farm in eastern North Carolina. There's also an increased demand for wind power. There are several wind projects in the works in eastern North Carolina. And, two areas off the coast Kitty Hawk and Wilmington recently opened for wind energy projects.

The future of sustainable energy in North Carolina may seem to have momentum, but some wind projects in eastern North Carolina specifically in Pamlico County are having trouble getting traction. I spoke with Oriental resident David Marchant. He told me wind turbines aren't a good idea because it doesn't make economic-sense.

"It's greener certainly. But it is much much more expensive. And I think power from fossil fuels can only get cheaper with natural gas becoming more and more available as a result of hydrofracking. I can't imagine wind power being economic today"

Pamlico County resident Mark Crowder is a proponent of green energy but is concerned with the noise made by the spinning blades.

"To me, it seems like out in the Sound. The Sound would be a great place for them or out in the water if they could build them out there where there's generally wind and out of the way from where people are living."

Most people I spoke with in Pamlico County supported the idea of a wind farms. However, Cherry Point is concerned that the turbines would negatively affect training at the base. We made several attempts to speak with Cherry Point officials on this topic, we were told by the base's public affairs they would line up someone for us to speak to. However, they did not call back.

On Wednesday, I did speak with County Manager Tim Buck who welcomes the wind projects, saying they would create several local job opportunities and provide the county with a source of clean, renewable energy.

"On a county level, these turbines are valued a tremendous amount. It would build the tax base in Pamlico County. Of course, we're relatively small, we have limited industry. It seems like a good match between our resources."

Buck says he's spoken with several different companies that are interested in building wind farms in Pamlico County. There are currently two wind projects under consideration, but nothing has been finalized. We reached out to Wind Capital Group which announced last January it wanted to construct between 65 and 100 wind turbines east of Highway 306 and north of Bayboro. However, they turned down the interview. Their wind farm would be located 20 to 30 miles northeast of Cherry Point. Local attorney James Normant with Allies for Cherry Point's Tomorrow says the size and height of a wind farm, combined with the close proximity to the base could potentially impact military training in eastern North Carolina.

"Our jets and helicopters fly from 250 feet up when they're training. And they don't fly that high throughout Pamlico County but in some parts they do some parts they don't. But it's really important as to where these wind turbines will be located."

In addition to affecting low altitude flying in Pamlico County, Normant says radar interference as a major concern.

"It actually interferes with the ability for the air station to monitor the air space."

Some believe the spinning turbine blades which are about 500 feet across can be detected on radar. And since the proposed wind farm is located within Cherry Point's radar range, it would cause interference on the radar. But not everyone's sold on that idea.

"it just seems to me it's not a realistic argument for why they shouldn't have it. It sounds like someone just came up with that idea. I doubt they can prove it."

To find out if radar can in fact be affected by wind turbines, we contacted Dr. Tom Rickenbach. He's the assistant professor of atmospheric science in the geography department at East Carolina University. While his experience with radar is monitoring thunderstorms and global weather patterns, he says the principle is the same.

"Both an aircraft tracking radar and a weather radar send out a signal from the radar site. And that signal bounces off a target, either an aircraft or a thunderstorm and part of that signal is returned to the radar transmitter, it's received there and it's interpreted to produce information in the case of aircraft where the aircraft is, how far it's moving, what direction it's moving. And similar things to in the case of thunderstorms."

Given the height of the turbines and the proximity of the proposed Pamlico County wind farm to Cherry Point, Dr. Rickenback believes the turbines could show up on the radar.

"Now in the case of wind mills, there sitting there like a building or a tree and typically that kind of stationary obstruction can be identified easily and removed and not be considered as a potential for aircraft or weather signal. But in the case of wind turbines, the turbine blades are rotating so it appears to the radar that they are a moving target. So it makes it more difficult to edit out or remove that signal from a real target. There is potential for having that turbine area identified on a radar signal."

In an effort to stop the impact on military operations, Allies for Cherry Point's Tomorrow recently passed a resolution in favor of proposed wind turbine and tall structure regulations. A moratorium on tall structures has also been suggested. Local attorney James Normant with ACT says if turbines are constructed, it would affect military training at the base, and could potentially cause the base to face closure during the next round of BRAC. If Cherry Point were to shutdown, almost 2,300 civilian and military employees would be out of a job.

"Training ranges are an important component to the installation. It's not just going to Havelock and looking at the air station runways and depot, it's the training ranges and the ability to get the Marines out flying and simulating combat and other training exercises as best they can. And an important part of BRAC, which is the Base Realignment and Closure process, a very important part of the BRAC process is analysis of how well can a particular installation support training ranges. So if we lose training ranges or have a reduced number of training ranges options because of wind turbines, in a BRAC, it makes Cherry Point look less attractive to the Marine Corp."

Normant adds North Carolina has unique military training opportunities. The Dare County bombing range is one of the only sites in the country the Air Force can practice flying in at 500 feet and dropping bombs. Training range 11 and 9 in Carteret County is the only place on the East Coast where live ordinance training is allowed.

In Beaufort County, a similar scenario is playing out. The area is just out of range of Cherry Point's radar but located near military training sites. Chicago-based Invenergy planned to build 49 wind turbines on 11,000 acres. However, the company released a statement on January 11th saying they would conduct a thorough reconsideration of the site instead of pursuing the project as previously proposed. We contacted Invenergy for comment but they turned down our request. The reason for the change is the impact the 500 foot tall turbines would have on existing military activity. In a letter to former Gov. Beverly Perdue, Gov. Pat McCrory and other elected state officials, Invenergy says they are "devoting their attention the Hales Lake Wind project" in Camden and Currituck counties, which would include over 100 wind turbines.

After hearing some of the concerns from the military, Pamlico County Manager Tim Buck says he's interested in getting more information from Cherry Point officials- specifically where the flight patterns take place. Still, Buck maintains wind energy projects would be a huge benefit for the county.

"We want to listen and we want to hear about what some of those additional concerns specifically are in Pamlico County. As a whole, my board supports wind energy projects I believe they believe it's a good thing for Pamlico County, it certainly would enhance the tax base, it would also allow private parties to also benefit by leasing their property."

Buck says a public hearing on the matter is probably in the near future.  Jared Brumbaugh, Public Radio East.

Jared Brumbaugh is the Assistant General Manager for Public Radio East. An Eastern North Carolina native, Jared began his professional public radio career at Public Radio East while he was a student at Craven Community College earning his degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. During his 15+ years at Public Radio East, he has served as an award-winning journalist, producer, and on-air host. When not at the station, Jared enjoys hiking, traveling, and honing his culinary skills.