Overlooking the all caps, italics, bolded passages and occasional exclamation marks, on its face the two-page letter sent by eight North Carolina lawmakers looked overblown but possibly informed.
Last month, the lawmakers — all Republicans — wrote to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, asking him to permanently close the Desert Wind farm just west of Elizabeth City. The letter quoted impressive-sounding government-funded studies about the threat of wind turbines on military radar. It cited a meticulous set of facts and figures. It listed footnotes in superscript, just like the MLA academic style book instructs.
Two of the five citations, though, were from unreliable sources that undermine the truth about the feasibility of wind farms in North Carolina:
Breitbart News, a primary disseminator of fake news, whose former executive chairman and founder sits at the right hand of President Trump;
The Alliance for Wise Energy Decisions, run by John Droz. Former real estate developer, holder of a master’s degree in solid state science, climate change skeptic, and outspoken opponent of wind energy, Droz hatched a confidential nationwide propaganda campaign against wind energy in 2011, as first reported by The Guardian.
“The letter was misinformed,” said Katharine Kollins, president of the Southeastern Wind Coalition.
(Two more citations linked to publicly available government documents, including an agreement between the Department of Defense and Iberdrola, the farm developer; a third was an impenetrable study of modeling analyses of wind turbines and radar systems.)
Whether Droz helped craft the letter’s language is unclear. None of the lawmakers responded to written questions from NCPW asking about the citations or their rationale for using them: Sens. Bill Cook, Harry Brown, Phil Berger, Norman Sanderson and Louis Pate; Reps. Pat McElraft, John Bell, Christopher Millis and George Cleveland.
Speaker Tim Moore, who also signed the letter, recently walked back his opposition to the farm. The developer Avangrid, a subsidiary of Iberdola Renewables, worked with the Pentagon on mitigating any conflicts. The Pentagon has approved of the project, as have local governments.
However, the tone of the letter — histrionic and at times, sycophantic —and even the punctuation are similar to that in Droz’s blogs and articles.
Reached by email, Droz did not answer a direct question about any involvement in drafting the letter. Instead, he wrote: “I have no problem with communicating with journalists who are making an honest effort to objectively describe a situation. However, years ago I made it clear to you that I was never a real estate developer — yet you continue to include that falsehood in your correspondences.”
(Droz’s online “real-estate focused resume” says he owns and has renovated numerous properties in New York State. He also claims to have co-founded one of the largest real estate companies in central New York. He also writes that in the 1980s he taught a widely acclaimed course on “How to Succeed in Real Estate Investing.”
That Rep. Cleveland was among the signers of the letter is also telling. Droz has a history of mingling with conservative lawmakers, including Cleveland, to advance his anti-renewable energy views. In 2013, Cleveland invited Droz, then the science adviser to NC-20 — the coastal real estate and business group pushing to ignore sea-level rise by not measuring it — to give a presentation to lawmakers.
At the time, Sam Pearsall, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, called it an “anti-science presentation disguised as science” and “propaganda disguised as anti-propaganda.”
The 104-turbine Amazon Wind Farm was built to power an Amazon data center in nearby Virginia, thus removing that energy burden from the electrical grid. The project had been in the pipeline for more than two years, while Iberdrola and its subsidiary, Avangrid, worked with the Department of Defense to site the farm in such a way to avoid conflicts with Navy radar.
A National Conference of State Legislatures report says that wind turbines can interfere with surveillance, air traffic control and other radar systems depending on the position and proximity of turbines and radar. The rotation of turbine blades and their changing velocity based on winds may block or weaken signals and complicate accurate aircraft and weather detection.
As a result of that consultation, the company built fewer turbines than the 150 planned until monitoring shows additional units would be safe.
Local officials from Pasquotank and Perquimans, both economically depleted counties, support the project for its economic promise of additional tax revenue.
The company leased 22,000 acres from 60 landowners, who are being paid to host the turbines. Even former Gov. Pat McCrory lauded the project. At the 2015 groundbreaking he said, “The Amazon Wind Farm takes a significant step toward diversifying North Carolina’s energy resources. Bringing onshore wind production to North Carolina is part of my ‘all of the above’ energy strategy. By diversifying our energy resources, we can provide affordable, reliable, and secure sources of energy that are environmentally clean and safe.”
There are already checks in place to prevent conflicts between the military and wind farms. Federal law requires that the Defense Department review any proposed wind farms near military bases. The DoD established a siting clearinghouse for developers and the military to work through legal and logistical issues.
According to the National Conference on State Legislatures, “ The clearinghouse has reviewed thousands of projects, the vast majority of which have been found to have minimal or no impact on military operations and readiness.”
This has occurred despite a 25 percent increase in applications from 2013–2014. Of the 2,594 energy-related applications filed in 2014, more than half were for wind operations, according to the clearinghouse. More than 80 percent of the total applications were cleared. (Solar farms and conventional transmission and distribution lines are included in the total.)
Most of the wind farm permitting occurs at the federal level, Kollins, of the Southeast Wind Coalition, explained, with input from the Defense Department, NOAA, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Homeland Security and the FAA. In 2014, Each of these agencies signed on to a Wind Turbine Radar Interference Mitigation Group.
As a result, wind farms operate near bases in many states, including New Mexico,North Dakota, California and Texas. (That said, Chris Collins, a Republican congressman from Colorado, is sponsoring a bill to prevent wind farms from receiving tax breaks if they locate near military bases.)
Local governments regulate the farms through zoning and land use permits. And on a state level, in 2013, North Carolina lawmakers passed House Bill 484, which mirrors many of the federal requirements and includes provisions regulating noise, height, decommissioning and bonding.
The Department of Environmental Quality is in charge of permitting, but the Amazon Wind Farm had begun before the bill’s passage, and was essentially grandfathered. “No wind farm has gone through the state permitting yet,” Kollins said. “Hopefully we’ll see that change.”
Although solar leads the renewable energy pack in North Carolina, wind energy could find a friend in leadership. On Monday, DEQ Secretary Michael Regan named retired Col. John Nicholson as his chief deputy secretary. As a Marine, Nicholson had worked on energy efficiency and environmental conservation projects. His knowledge of both the military and environmental issues could put him in a prime position to influence permitting at DEQ.
(Nicholson starts his new job at DEQ next week and wasn’t available for comment on Tuesday.)
“So much depends on trust, and John Nicholson is credible among all parties,” Kollins said. “And the wind industry is getting better at explaining how vetting works. It’s like solar — we’ll see the truth come out.”