North Carolina is quietly emerging as the nation's next proving ground for wind energy, but the maximum potential for wind energy is linked to a generous financial incentive that's about to expire.
More than 2,000 megawatts of wind power are under study or development in this state, all of it at the state's eastern edge and in the Atlantic Ocean.
If one of the proposed projects, a 300-megawatt project near Elizabeth City, is built on schedule next year, it would be the first commercial-scale wind energy project in the Southeast and one of the biggest wind farms in the nation.
The 31-square mile Desert Wind Energy Project has yet to receive its first permit from federal, state local authorities. But developer Iberdrola, the world's largest wind energy developer, is also exploring the potential of 450 megawatts of wind farms in Camden and Currituck counties, according to public records.
Iberdrola officials discussed their plans Tuesday during the N.C. State Energy Office's Sustainable Energy Conference in Raleigh. The $600 million Desert Wind Energy Project would employ up to 400 people during construction and 15 to 20 full-timers to operate the facility when it is completed.
"I submit to you that commercial-scale, land-based wind is definitely viable in the Southeast," said David Shadle, Iberdrola's managing director for wind business development.
The wind projects are subsidized by state policies mandating power companies to adopt green energy. Also key to wind farms is a federal incentive covering 30 percent of the cost of a wind farm project. That policy is slated to expire, and wind experts at Tuesday's conference warned that a failure to renew the subsidy would put an end to much of the wind energy projects under consideration.
In all, developers are exploring the possibility of building 900 megawatts of wind power capacity Eastern North Carolina. That's equivalent to the power output of the Shearon Harris nuclear plant in Wake County.
However, the public records on file with PJM also show that developers expect their wind farms to produce just a fraction of their maximum capacity. The developers are requesting electrical transmission capacity for 126.57 megawatts for their combined 900 megawatt projects, according to filings with PJM, a transmission system operator in a 13-state region that includes northeastern North Carolina.
That's because wind farms, unlike nuclear plants and coal-burning power plants, generate electricity only when the wind is blowing.
Much of the interest in wind power in this state is for offshore wind, beyond reach of the naked eye from the coastline. Apex Wind Energy in Charlottesville, Va., is interested in developing at least 2,000 megawatts of wind energy offshore over then next 20 years in federal waters.
The U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, the agency that issues oil drilling permits, is expected this year to produce a map of suitable ocean waters for wind farm development, identifying areas that don't conflict with shipping routes, military operations, environmental issues or other concerns.