State officials have approved a proposed 49-turbine wind farm in Eastern North Carolina that critics worry could kill migrating birds from the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge nearby.
The N.C. Utilities Commission said Thursday that it had no legal authority to reject the Pantego Wind Energy Facility, which would spread over 11,000 acres in Beaufort County. But the state commission said the wind farm can't move ahead until it receives state and federal environmental permits and meets other strict conditions.
As it is, the wind project is delayed by one year, with the earliest possible date it could be operating and generating electricity now put back to late 2013.
The project, proposed by Chicago-based Invenergy, would feature turbines reaching nearly 500 feet into the air to the tip of the blade. The blades could achieve rotational speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour in air space congested with birds and bats - a chief concern to naturalists and environmentalists who wanted more research on bird flight patterns before allowing the project to proceed.
At risk are several species, including some 100,000 tundra swans that migrate to the wildlife refuge each winter and forage on nearby farms, an annual spectacle and tourist attraction.
Those concerns weighed upon the commissioners, who wrote in their ruling that adopting green energy "might require some risk of change in the natural habitat of wildlife." But the commission said the Pantego project, which could provide electricity for as many as 15,000 homes, demonstrated "proven environmental benefits of reducing fossil fuel generation."
The Pantego project is the second major wind farm that the commission has approved, but both have been tied up by unanticipated complications. The commission previously approved the 300-megawatt Atlantic Wind project, proposed near Elizabeth City, but the developers have not been able to reach an agreement with an electric utility to buy the power output.
Pantego also is negotiating with power companies to buy the electricity from its wind farm, a precondition of a multimillion project of this scale being financed and built.
The project requires federal permits from the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It also requires state permits from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
"This is an important first step, part of an extensive regulatory review that will include numerous local, state, and federal agencies," Invenergy said in a statement.
Among the conditions required by the N.C. Utilities Commission for Pantego are submitting notification within 48 hours if five or more bats or migrating birds are found injured or dead, or if one or more bald eagles or golden eagles are found injured or dead.
Killing or injuring endangered species is a federal crime, though the law has typically not been enforced against wind farms operating with state and federal approval. The turbines can cause bird kills unintentionally when giant blades strike birds in midflight.
Invenergy is in the midst of a bird count and study tracking flight and feeding patterns in the area near the communities of Pantego and Terra Ceia where it proposes to build its 80-megawatt project.
The study will be completed in the coming weeks and will be submitted to state authorities this summer, said Dave Groberg, Invenergy's vice president for business development.
Invenergy has lined up land-lease deals with more than 20 area farmers who would host the Pantego turbines on their land.
The company says the project would provide substantial long-term economic benefits to the area, including more than $1 million a year in property taxes. The project is expected to generate more than 100 jobs during construction and at least five permanent jobs for operating technicians.