For Low-Income Residents, the Economic Benefits of Amazon’s New Wind Farm are Up in the Air

Amanda Abrams August 15, 2017

Developed to power Amazon data centers, a three-county rural area near Elizabeth City, N.C., is now home to the largest wind farming area in the southeastern United States. While the incentives for land-owning farmers to allow turbines on their land can be lucrative, help for the region's poorer residents will depend on how local governments use the new money they're collecting in property taxes.

In Feb­ru­ary, the first large-scale wind farm in the South­east went online in north­east North Car­oli­na. Cre­at­ed to pow­er Ama­zon data cen­ters, the 208-megawatt facil­i­ty will inject almost a mil­lion dol­lars into the local econ­o­my annu­al­ly. But the region is rur­al, decid­ed­ly poor and home to a siz­able African Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion. Will the area’s low-income res­i­dents ben­e­fit from any of that new mon­ey, or will the facil­i­ty wind up sim­ply widen­ing the exist­ing gulf?

The Ama­zon wind project strad­dles two coun­ties, Perquimans and Pasquotank, that sit on the Albe­mar­le Sound, just inland from the Out­er Banks. The region is flat and swampy, with long stretch­es of corn and soy­bean fields. The biggest munic­i­pal­i­ty, Eliz­a­beth City, has a charm­ing but desert­ed down­town and a pover­ty rate of 30 per­cent, almost dou­ble the state aver­age. The town, which is major­i­ty African Amer­i­can, hasn’t ful­ly recov­ered from the reces­sion; jobs are at the local Coast Guard base or with the state, and there isn’t much else. 

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, unlike solar projects, wind facil­i­ties don’t require many work­ers to set up or main­tain the tur­bines. One per­son on the main­te­nance side takes care of twelve machines,” says David Swen­son, an asso­ciate sci­en­tist in the depart­ment of eco­nom­ics at Iowa State Uni­ver­si­ty. There’s not many jobs cre­at­ed; the tra­di­tion­al work­ing per­son won’t have access to much.” So employ­ment isn’t a major ben­e­fit of the projects.

Aug. 10, 2016 — Two work­men stand on the nacelle (the hous­ing for a wind tur­bine’s gen­er­at­ing com­po­nents) dur­ing con­struc­tion of the Ama­zon Wind Farm. The com­plete assem­bly of each tur­bine is 492 feet tall. (Pho­to: Chuck Lid­dy / new​sob​serv​er​.com)

But most wind projects do deliv­er rev­enue to a com­mu­ni­ty in two dis­tinct ways. First, landown­ers receive pay­ments for the tur­bines they host on their prop­er­ty. In this case, the 60-some prop­er­ty own­ers in the region are issued $6,000 per tur­bine per year. That’s a big win for farm­ers, espe­cial­ly when agri­cul­tur­al com­mod­i­ty prices are low as they cur­rent­ly are; they receive pay­ments but are still able to farm 95 per­cent of the land.

But despite their peren­ni­al dif­fi­cul­ties, few landown­ing farm­ers are low-income. That’s true here, where the medi­an income for the coun­ty as a whole is very close to the state aver­age. We’re qui­et, mid­dle class peo­ple. I wouldn’t say anybody’s strug­gling,” says James White, a farmer in White­ston who has two tur­bines on his land. With 200 acres, he’s con­sid­ered a small farmer. It’s not a make or break for any­one, just an extra benefit.”

Those pay­ments do trick­le down to busi­ness­es and oth­ers in the com­mu­ni­ty — White and his wife bought a new car and truck in Eliz­a­beth City last year as a result of the forth­com­ing tur­bine pay­ments — but the over­all eco­nom­ic impact of leas­ing some­thing out is fair­ly weak, says Swen­son. That means non-landown­ing folks in the region don’t wind up see­ing a whole lot of that money.

It’s the sec­ond set of pay­ments from projects like these that real­ly mat­ter to low­er-income com­mu­ni­ties. Wind pow­er devel­op­ers pay prop­er­ty tax­es to coun­ties. In this region, Avan­grid Renew­ables, which built and oper­ates the Ama­zon wind facil­i­ty, pays Pasquotank and Perquimans coun­ties $5,000 per tur­bine. That comes out to around $500,000, which is rough­ly split between the two coun­ties, and makes Avan­grid the biggest tax­pay­er in both counties.

A map of the where the Ama­zon Wind Farm over­laps Pasquotank and Perquimans coun­ties. The Naval ROTHR is a near­by mil­i­tary long-range radar sur­veil­lance sta­tion. (Info­graph­ic: car​oli​na​jour​nal​.com)

Whether poor res­i­dents ben­e­fit from wind farms depends, by and large, on how a coun­ty gov­ern­ment choos­es to use those rev­enues. In Perquimans and Pasquotank coun­ties, the new funds are being used to fill holes. It’s been a very tight econ­o­my here, and most agen­cies have been spend­ing their fund bal­ance down to the allow­able lev­el. That $250,000 eas­es the pain a lit­tle bit, but does­n’t cre­ate any mon­ey for addi­tion­al ini­tia­tives,” says Wayne Har­ris, eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment offi­cer for Pasquotank County.

Coun­ty com­mis­sion­ers in this area could even­tu­al­ly make more strate­gic choic­es. Elect­ed offi­cials in oth­er regions have used their wind­fall to low­er their tax rates — by half or even more. Low-income res­i­dents would most like­ly gain from that. Low­ered tax­es would ben­e­fit you even if you don’t pay income tax­es or even own prop­er­ty,” says John Rogers, a senior ana­lyst in the Cli­mate and Ener­gy Pro­gram at the Union of Con­cerned Scientists.

Oth­er com­mu­ni­ties have heav­i­ly invest­ed in schools, with pro­grams that ben­e­fit stu­dents across the income spec­trum. In Van Wert, Ohio, the school sys­tem used wind ener­gy mon­ey to buy com­put­ers for every stu­dent and estab­lish new STEM pro­grams. In Lowville, N.Y., rev­enues from a wind farm fund­ed AP cours­es, expand­ed tech­nol­o­gy and refur­bished school ath­let­ic facilities.

Of course, poor regions will always have com­pet­ing pri­or­i­ties — roads that need repaving or jails that are con­tin­u­al­ly under­fund­ed. In Pasquotank Coun­ty, for exam­ple, the school dis­trict has been des­per­ate for more fund­ing. This year, the coun­ty com­mis­sion­ers had to raise tax­es to cov­er a short­fall in the school system’s bud­get. Next year, they might be able to use wind pow­er mon­ey for that.

But many Eliz­a­beth City res­i­dents are dubi­ous that they’ll ever see that mon­ey. A rumor has been going around that the wind pow­er funds won’t stay in the state, says Nan­cy, who doesn’t want to use her last name. She’s a long­time Eliz­a­beth City res­i­dent who recent­ly moved away when the house she was rent­ing was con­demned. A lot of us have been told that the wind farm would only ben­e­fit peo­ple out­side of the area,” she says.

Oth­ers sim­ply don’t trust their coun­ty gov­ern­ment to do the right thing. Dou­glas Britt, own­er of D&J Wood­work­ing, is skep­ti­cal about how the city will man­age the new funds. I’m for it; I just wish we’d get a lit­tle more money.”

The upshot? Low-income peo­ple could see real ben­e­fits from new wind pow­er rev­enues — but they’re going to have to push for it and advo­cate for themselves.

Mean­while, the state of North Car­oli­na is prov­ing to be the biggest bar­ri­er to eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment: The state leg­is­la­ture recent­ly passed an 18-month mora­to­ri­um on new wind farms across the state. Leg­is­la­tors say they’re con­cerned that the tur­bines might inter­fere with air­craft activ­i­ty at near­by mil­i­tary bases, which pro­vide a major eco­nom­ic boost to the east­ern part of the state. But wind ener­gy projects must already pass rig­or­ous Defense Depart­ment and FAA reviews before approval, and many observers think mon­ey from the petro­le­um indus­try is play­ing an influ­en­tial role. Two more facil­i­ties have been in devel­op­ment in north­east­ern North Car­oli­na, but now the res­i­dents there will have to wait even longer to see ben­e­fits flow to their depressed regions.

In addi­tion to the mil­i­tary argu­ment being made in North Car­oli­na, the sound gen­er­at­ed by mas­sive tur­bines, their pres­ence on the land­scape, and the death of bats and birds also make wind farms con­tro­ver­sial in many parts of the coun­try. (Video: WAVY TV 10 / YouTube)
Aman­da Abrams is a free­lance jour­nal­ist liv­ing in Durham, North Carolina.
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