Wind turbines run on farm land in Trimont, Minn. Iberdrola Renewables will build a similar wind energy farm near Elizabeth City, N.C.

Wind turbines run on farm land in Trimont, Minn. Iberdrola Renewables will build a similar wind energy farm near Elizabeth City, N.C. (Iberdrola Renewables LLC, AP)

On a vast tract of old North Carolina farmland, crews are getting ready to build something the South has never seen: a commercial-scale wind energy farm.

The $600 million project by Spanish developer Iberdrola Renewables will put 102 turbines on 22,000 acres near the coastal community of Elizabeth City, with plans to add about 50 more. Once up and running, it could generate about 204 megawatts, or enough electricity to power about 60,000 homes. It would be the first large wind farm in a region that has been a dead zone for wind power.

Right now, there’s not a spark of electricity generated from wind in 10 states across the South from Arkansas to Florida, according to data from the American Wind Energy Association, an industry trade group.

But taller towers and bigger turbines are unlocking potential in the South, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, and the industry is looking to invest.

And with the electricity system in the region undergoing a period of change as coal plants are phased out, some experts believe the door is open for renewables such as wind.

Federal energy researchers have found stronger winds at higher elevations that can be tapped by new towers and bigger rotor blades. New federal maps of onshore wind flows at higher elevations than were previously available indicate that this new technology significantly increases the areas that wind can thrive, especially in the Southeast.

“If you go higher, the wind is better,” said Jose Zayas, director of the Wind 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.

Spiraling wind farms in 36 states generate about 5 percent of U.S. energy — low compared with countries such as Denmark (28 percent), Portugal, Spain and Ireland (16 percent each). South Dakota and Iowa derive about 20 percent of their electric energy from wind, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The Energy Department believes the U.S. can generate 20 percent of the country’s power with wind by 2030 by opening up the Southeast and other new areas.

There are hurdles: Utilities in most Southern states have not invested heavily in renewable energy. Only North Carolina has adopted a state law mandating utilities to increase their renewable energy portfolios.

But other factors are forcing change. Abundant natural gas, coal being phased out and aging nuclear plants are creating a potentially robust market for wind power, said Jonas Monast of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

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, the industry group said.

Still, without state renewable energy mandates like North Carolina’s, the growth could be slow, experts said.

Another issue facing wind farms in the Southeast is protecting the region’s birds and bats. The danger of wind turbines to birds such as rare golden eagles and bats has plagued or derailed major projects in the West. Avian research is now factored into decisions on where to put wind farms. Because no wind farms exist anywhere in the South, little research has been done on that issue.

Wind power

The U.S. Department of Energy wants 20 percent of the nation’s energy to come from wind power in the next 15 years, up from the 5 percent wind generates now. A new Energy Department report finds that wind technology featuring taller towers and larger turbines may get the nation to that goal by opening up areas to wind farm development that were previously dead zones. Here’s a look at the top wind-producing states, as measured in megawatts, as well as the 11 states that have no commercial wind power:

Top 10 states in amount of max-capacity wind energy installed, in megawatts:

Texas, 14,098 megawatts

California, 5,917

Iowa, 5,688

Oklahoma, 3,782

Illinois, 3,568

Oregon, 3,153

Washington, 3,075

Minnesota, 3,035

Kansas, 2,967

Colorado, 2,593

States with zero wind energy installed:









North Carolina

South Carolina


Source: American Wind Energy Association