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Project successfully takes on headwinds

Avangrid Renewables has succeeded in building the largest wind farm in the southeastern U.S., despite some headwinds in the form of groundless arguments from anti-renewable power interests that the project would have an impact on nearby military operation

By Tony Kryzanowski

The timing for the construction and commissioning of the largest wind farm in the American Southeast in North Carolina could not have been better. Technological advances and cost competitiveness converged to make the $400 million Amazon Wind Farm US East project an unqualified success.

However, the project's hugely positive economic impact on the surrounding community and the state is being somewhat overshadowed by a new political reality in the U.S. That reality has emboldened supporters of fossil fuel-based power generation, typically represented by certain politicians often working in concert with a well-funded, anti-renewables lobby.

Designed and constructed by Avangrid Renewables, the Amazon Wind Farm US East project has brought significant economic benefits to landowners and taxpayers in financially-challenged Pasquotank and Perquimans counties. Because of the prosperity the project brings, it therefore should come as no surprise that the pushback on renewables is not coming from local residents or local politicians.

"Farms have been growing corn, soybeans, and wheat for a long time here, and the wind farm revenue means a lot of families are protected from pricing swings, floods, or droughts going forward," says Horace Pritchard, one of nearly 60 landowners associated with the project. "We're just adding another locally-grown crop to our fields, with very little ground taken out of production, and the improved roads really help with access. So it's a great fit here."

Pasquotank and Perquimans counties are among the most economically challenged counties in North Carolina, says Craig Poff, Avangrid Business Development manager and project manager on the Amazon project. "This particular project just brings a tremendous opportunity economically for jobs, payments to local landowners, and tax revenues. Opportunities like this don't come to these small, rural communities very often, and we were very pleased to bring one to them."

The project, distributed over 22,000 acres of farmland, has a permanent structural footprint of less than 200 acres. As part of the project, 62 miles of new roads were built at no cost to local taxpayers. Amazon Wind Farm US East generates 208 megawatts (MW) of power, creating enough energy for about 61,000 homes.

Avangrid says that the 18-month construction period for the project put more than 30 North Carolina-based companies to work, with a peak on-site workforce of 500 workers, and it resulted in $18 million spent locally by Avangrid Renewables. A total of 17 new, permanent jobs were created. Landowner payments and taxes will inject more than $1.1 million into the local economy each year.

 
  

"Almost everyone in the community knows someone who worked on the wind farm, sold or rented something that helped build the wind farm, or owns land where the project was built," says Cecil Perry, chairman of the Pasquotank County Board of Commissioners.

All of the power generated by the project is delivered to the grid for Amazon Web Services Inc. (AWS), part of the Amazon.com group of companies, to use in both current and future AWS Cloud data centers.

Nat Sahlstrom, director of AWS Energy Strategy, says that at the close of 2016, the company had achieved 40 percent renewable energy and set a new goal to achieve 50 percent by the end of 2017 in a continued march toward its long-term commitment of achieving 100 percent renewable energy usage for its global infrastructure footprint.

The Amazon Wind Farm US East project has delivered multiple benefits. But Avangrid Renewables says that it is not planning to pursue additional projects in North Carolina in the foreseeable future based on the signals, including an uncertain state permitting process, that North Carolina is sending to wind power developers. This is in spite of an additional $2 billion to $3 billion in wind power investment potential identified for the state's northeastern region.

In January, a group of North Carolina Republican legislators, including the House Speaker, Tim Moore, sent what local press described as a "fiery letter," urging the newly-elected Trump administration to shut down the new wind farm, arguing that it would interfere with nearby military operations.

According to Poff, the complaints expressed in the letter are groundless, as the company received clearance from the military that the wind farm would not interfere with military readiness or bases. The company held extensive consultations with the military throughout the project's development, including the location of towers, and even scaled back the number of proposed turbines from 150 to 104.

"We are a very responsible company that would not invest this type of money in a project that was known to have conflicts with military or national security," says Poff.

 
 The Amazon Wind Farm US East project features taller towers and longer blades than many typical wind projects. Each blade on the 305-foot towers measures 182 feet. The rotor diameter on each installation is 376 feet.
  

This attempt to shut down the wind farm is just one of several attempts by anti-renewable-power lobby groups and certain state politicians to stifle growth in North Carolina's renewable power sector. It has also included an attempt to discontinue subsidies to the state's solar and other renewable power developers. This effort failed when a number of Republican legislators voted to maintain the current subsidy program.

From Avangrid Renewables' standpoint, given the current signals coming from the state pertaining to future renewable power development, there are other more welcoming jurisdictions in the U.S., and that's where they have turned their focus. Avangrid has an established track record and currently has wind farms operating in 20 different U.S. states.

"Our interest in North Carolina overall is based on the signals that come from North Carolina," says Poff. "Presently, we are in a growth mode, and we are evaluating states all over the map. The signals coming from North Carolina are not as attractive as they used to be."

Among those not supporting state legislators attempting to derail further renewable power development, was North Carolina General Assembly Rep. Bob Steinburg, who represents the area where the Avangrid Renewable wind farm is located. During a recent tour of the installation, he said that the vast majority of his constituents support the wind project.

Avangrid Renewables began landowner outreach on the project in 2009, and the project achieved full commercial operation in February 2017. Construction took place in 2015 and 2016.

Poff says the location of the Amazon Wind Farm US East project was a nexus, meeting the company's three criteria for achieving a successful wind farm, those being a quality wind resource, land availability, and access to transmission and markets.

 
Avangrid Renewables received clearance from the military that the wind farm would not interfere with military readiness or bases. The company held extensive consultations with the military throughout the project's development. 
  

North Carolina has a good wind resource because of breezes coming onshore from the Atlantic Ocean, but it tends to be higher up than on the Great Plains because of land obstructions like trees and buildings. The project is located about 30 miles inland from the Atlantic shore.

Advances in both tower design and turbines have really opened up development potential in places like North Carolina. The Amazon Wind Farm US East project features taller towers and longer blades than in many typical wind projects. Each blade on the 305-foot towers measures 182 feet. The rotor diameter on each installation is 376 feet.

"If you look at where this project is situated, it is in a very large area that is used almost exclusively for row crop production," says Poff. "So we have very few constraints from an environmental or human impact. We were able to find a site that is well back from existing infrastructure, still had access to the transmission infrastructure, and still had that wind resource."

A number of companies assisted Avangrid Renewables in the design and construction of the project. Rochester, New York-based Fisher Associates was one of their primary civil engineers. Gamesa provided 104 of its 2.0-MW G114 turbines. Kansas City, Missouri-based PAR Electrical Contractors was a primary electrical contractor, and Wanzek Construction from West Fargo, North Dakota, was the general contractor for civil work and erection. Commercial Ready Mix Products (CRMP), a local company located in Ahoskie, North Carolina, provided the concrete—60 truckloads for each turbine foundation.

Looking at the big picture, Poff says that it took time for turbine technology to advance sufficiently to make the Amazon Wind Farm US East project competitive.

"In these areas that have yet to be developed in the U.S. South and Southeast, there is a lower wind resource than say the Great Plains," says Poff. "Turbine technology is advancing to get taller turbines with larger rotor diameters, which will enable us to get energy out of lower wind sites."

He says that these technological advances are a recent development in the wind industry, to provide larger, more efficient, and quieter blades that are better at extracting the available wind energy. In addition to the technological advances, prices have come down. The combination of these two factors has opened up parts of the U.S. that in the past may not have been considered able to deliver an economically viable wind farm.

"Those of us who are looking at new opportunities are certainly taking note of the technologies and their application in sites that maybe we didn't think were feasible five or 10 years ago," Poff says.

In terms of Amazon's involvement as the power off-taker from this project, Avangrid Renewables spokesman Paul Copleman says that there is a growing number of large retail entities like Amazon interested in purchasing wind power. He adds that the main attraction for a company like Amazon to purchase this type of power is that "it offers a fixed, long-term price that is competitive for them."

 


May/June 2017