State officials gave their approval today to build a 49-turbine wind farm in Eastern North Carolina that critics worry could cause bird kills of tundra swans and other migratory birds that like to roost nearby at the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge when visiting the state for the winter.
The N.C. Utilities Commission said it had no legal authority to deny approval to the Pantego Wind Energy Facility, which would spread over 11,000 acres in Beaufort County. But the state commission said the project can't go ahead until it receives state and federal environmental permits and meets other strict conditions, conditions that could delay the project for months.
The Pantego wind farm, 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 well exceeding 100 miles per hour, which is a chief concern to naturalists and environmentalists who wanted more research on bird migratory patterns before approving the project.
The commissioners, who are appointed by the state governor, wrote that weighing the environmental risks and benefits of green energy "is at times a delicate risk, one that might require some risk of change in the natural habitat of wildlife."
But the commission said the Pantego project demonstrated "proven environmental benefits of reducing fossil fuel generation."
The Pantego project is the second major wind farm approved by the commission, and the second that has been hamstrung by unanticipated complications. The commission previously approved a 300-megawatt Atlantic Wind project but developers of that proposal have not been able to reach an agreement with an electric utility to buy the power output of their wind farm, delaying construction by months.
Pantego is also negotiating with power companies to buy the electricity from its wind farm, a precondition of such a project being financed and built.
"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. 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 it has typically not been enforced against wind farms that are operating with state and federal approval and cause bird kills unintentionally.
Invenergy, the project developer, is currently in the midst of a study tracking bird flight and feeding patterns near the area where it proposes to build its 80-megawatt project near the communities of Pantego and Terra Ceia.
The study will be completed in the coming weeks but will require several months of analysis.
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.