On a vast tractof old North Carolina farmland, crews are getting ready to buildsomething the South has never seen: a commercial-scale wind energy farm.
The$600 million project by Spanish developer Iberdrola Renewables LLC willput 102 turbines on 22,000 acres near the coastal community ofElizabeth City, with plans to add about 50 more. Once up and running, itcould generate about 204 megawatts, or enough electricity to powerabout 60,000 homes.
Itwould be the first large onshore wind farm in a region with light,fluctuating winds that has long been a dead zone for wind power.
Aftera years-long regulatory process that once looked to have doomed theplan, Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman told The Associated Press thatconstruction is to begin in about a month.
Rightnow, there's not a spark of electricity generated from wind in ninestates across the Southeast from Arkansas to Florida, according to datafrom the American Wind Energy Association, an industry trade group.
Buttaller towers and bigger turbines are unlocking new potential in theSouth, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, and the industry isalready looking to invest.
Andwith the electricity system in the region undergoing a period of changeas coal plants are phased out, some experts believe the door is openfor renewables like wind.
Federalenergy researchers have found stronger winds at higher elevations thatcan be tapped by new towers and bigger rotor blades. New federal maps ofonshore wind flows at higher elevations than were previously availableindicate that this new technology significantly increases the areas thatwind can thrive, especially in the Southeast.
"Ifyou go higher, the wind is better," said Jose Zayas, director of theWind and Water Power Technologies Office at the Department of Energy."The question is how you get there responsibly and economically."
The average tower height now in the U.S. is about 260 feet; the new technology allows turbines to mine air at 460 feet.
Theproject in North Carolina was not viable just a decade ago, companyofficials said. But the new, larger turbines unlocked the area'spotential.
"Inthe past this site barely showed up on old (wind) maps. It was a littlebrown smudge," said Craig Poff, one of the developers, referring tocolor-coded wind resource maps. "The larger-diameter rotors are reallythe game-changer here."
Spiralingwind farms in 36 states already generate about 5 percent of U.S. energy— low compared to other countries like Denmark (28 percent), Portugal,Spain and Ireland (16 percent each). South Dakota and Iowa alreadyderive about 20 percent of their electric energy from wind, according tothe National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
The Energy Department believes the U.S. can generate 20 percent of the country's power with wind by 2030, and opening up the Southeast and other new areas is a key to achieving that goal.
Thereare hurdles: Utilities in most Southern states have not investedheavily in renewable energy. Also, only North Carolina has adopted a state law mandating utilities to increase their renewable energy portfolios.
But other factors are already forcing change in the region's energy market. Abundant natural gas, coal being phased out and aging nuclear plants are creating a potentially robust market for wind power as utilitiesseek the next best investment to add to their energy mixes, said Jonas Monast of Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
"It'sconceivable that we can see a dramatic growth in wind as we've seen insolar because utilities are entering into a new phase," he said.
Florida, Alabama and Georgia have signed contracts to start importing wind power from other regions to help with fuel price volatility. Wind farms have been proposed in Kentucky, Virginia, Alabama and other areas, theindustry group said.
Still, without state renewable energy mandates like North Carolina's, the growth could be slow going, experts said.
"Quitefrankly, often this is driven by customer demand and I don't really sense consumer demand in the Southeast, particularly in Alabama," saidClark Midkiff, a mechanical engineering professor at the University ofAlabama who studies energy issues in the region.
Another issue facing wind farms in the Southeast is protecting the region's birds and bats.
The danger of wind turbines to birds like rare golden eagles and bats hasplagued or derailed major projects in the West. Avian research is nowfactored into decisions on where to put wind farms, and can make orbreak a project.
Because no wind farms exist anywhere in the South, little research has been done on the issue. Researchers and developers will have to catch up.
"Thisis a community that has not experienced a lot of wind," said Zayas, ofthe Energy Department. "And understanding and recognizing we can deploy these responsibly with biological and agency (studies) of species is apriority."