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Amazon to Flip the Switch on Massive Wind Project in North Carolina

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By Robynne Boyd

Before the ball drops on New Year's Eve, 104 wind turbines scattered across 22,000 acres of farmland near Elizabeth City, North Carolina, will begin churning out electricity. It will be the South's first large-scale wind farm. At 208 megawatts, Avangrid's facility has the capacity to capture enough of the sky's kinetic energy to power 61,000 homes. But instead of homes, this electricity will run data centers for Amazon Web Services, a subsidiary of Amazon.com.

Amazon Wind Farm U.S. East, a new wind farm outside Elizabeth City, North Carolina.Avangrid Renewables

Wind generates about 5 percent of U.S. electricity, but that figure is steadily rising. In fact, at 41 percent, wind power was the largest source of new electricity production in 2015. None of that, however, came out of the Southeast. The region imports 3.8 gigawatts of wind energy from the Midwest (enough to power 10 million homes for as little as 1.8 cents per kilowatt-hour), but wind farms themselves, similar to solar, have almost no penetration here.

"Wind is so new in the Southeast; I think there has been a fear of the unknown," said Katharine Kollins, president of Southeastern Wind Coalition. "Having the Avangrid project up and running will be important for people to see wind farms firsthand and up close."

Except for the occasional hurricane, the South isn't known to be particularly windy—at least not compared with Plains states like Iowa, where the wind accounts for nearly a third of total electricity generation. But great potential exists in this void and with new turbine technology, some southern states are getting ready to tap into it.

"The biggest change in the industry has been turbine advancements," said Simon Mahan, director of the Southern Wind Energy Association, an industry organization. Taller turbines, like those at Avangrid's Amazon Wind Farm, can reach higher, stronger winds, and longer blades are able to harness gentler breezes. "This is opening the South as the next frontier for wind energy," Mahan noted.

Indeed, wind turbines have gone through a growth spurt. Since the 1990s, hub height has risen from 45 to 300 feet, which is as tall as the Statue of Liberty. And blades now extend more than 180 feet in length.

In addition to technology, improvements in energy policy, such as renewable energy standards and the federal Production Tax Credit, have enabled wind's price tag to plummet 90 percent over the past 25 years, making it more alluring in the competitive energy market.

According to a 2015 report by the U.S. Department of Energy, the Southeast could become the Most Improved Player in coming years, particularly as the national energy mix continues to change. "If I'm thinking realistic numbers, the Southeast could easily support a few gigawatts of wind," Kollins said.

Over the next 12 years, 46 coal power plants around the country (including 19 in the Southeast) are due to retire, despite the incoming Trump administration's promises to bring back the coal industry by removing regulations that protect clean air and water. Improved energy efficiency will help, but those retired plants' electricity contribution, about 15,600 megawatts, will need to be replaced with something. And that something will likely be a combo of cheap natural gas and renewables, which together provided 45 percent of the country's electricity last year.

"A company or utility looking to decrease its costs needs to be looking to buy wind and solar right now," Mahan said. "At the end of the day, if it's cheaper to do, why not?"

So, then, why aren't more renewable projects in the works in the South? One limiting factor is that Georgia, Tennessee, and South Carolina are all building new nuclear reactors and once these are complete (whenever that happens), the region will have more than enough power. However, the largest factor is the lack of independent system operators (ISOs) or regional transmission organizations (RTOs).

Electricity markets can be complicated, so stay with me here: The U.S. is divided into three interconnection regions (Eastern, Western and Texas) that do not share energy between them. Smaller subregions, such as California and the Northeast, exist within those three, and they can organize their markets as an ISO or RTO, which enables entities other than utilities (such as wind farms) to sell electricity directly to the market. The area around Elizabeth City, for example, is part of an RTO called PJM Interconnection. PJM allows Avangrid, the wind farm developer, to sell electricity directly to Amazon Web Services for its data centers at a price per kilowatt-hour negotiated by the two parties. This type of arrangement creates open, competitive markets for companies and utilities as well as the cities that welcome the projects. Avangrid, by the way, is now the largest taxpayer by far in Perquimans County.

Amazon Wind Farm being built.Avangrid Renewables

Most of the Southeast, however, functions under a more traditional approach in which the utilities maintain control over the power plants and distribution wires―and therefore the price. So it can be challenging for wind companies to break into these markets, unless they sign a power purchase agreement with the utility. Currently, nearly a dozen wind projects in development in the region are waiting for a utility to show interest.

Despite the dearth of wind farms on southern soil, the industry still has a sizable footprint here. In more than 100 wind-related factories, thousands of southerners manufacture everything from turbine blades to rotors. If the South is making the tools for the country's wind industry, it might as well start using them too.

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By Zak Smith

It is pretty amazing that in this moment when the COVID-19 outbreak has much of the country holed up in their homes binging Netflix, the most watched show in America over the last few weeks has been focused on wildlife trade — which scientists believe is the source of the COVID-19 pandemic. Make no mistake: Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness is about wildlife trade and other aspects of wildlife exploitation, just as surely as the appearance of Ebola, SARS, MERS, avian flu and probably COVID-19 in humans is a result of wildlife exploitation. As a conservationist, this is one of the things I've been thinking about while watching Tiger King. Here are five more:

1. We are in a biodiversity crisis.

A million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction, many within decades, including tigers. The leading drivers of species decline and the impending collapse of ecosystems are ocean and land use changes (like converting wildlands into other uses, usually agricultural) and the direct exploitation of species (like taking animals out of the wild for eating, "medicinal" purposes, or status motives). It is for these exact reasons that there are more tigers in cages in the United States than there are in the wild. Developers continue to destroy tiger habitat and, in the not-so-distant past, hunters shot and killed tigers for sport or for trade in tiger products (and some still do illegally).

2. We must fundamentally change our relationship to nature.

Transformative change is necessary to limit species extinctions and secure human well-being (functioning ecosystems provide the clean air, clean water, carbon sequestration, flood control, healthy soils, pollination of plants and healthy coastal waters humans need to survive). Transformative change in this context means "a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic, and social factors, including paradigms, goals, and values." We aren't going to halt the loss of species and strengthen ecosystems if we continue to treat wild plants and animals as expendable and renewable resources that we can use however we want. The tigers and other animals in Tiger King are exploited for profit and personal interests. Regardless of how they may be respected, coveted, or cared for, they are still treated as exploitable objects, which reinforces other destructive attitudes toward nature. A tiger cub is something to be held and photographed, a wetland is something to be filled and built upon, a rhino is something to be killed so we can use its horn for fake medicine. It's a view of nature as being in service to human wants, an attitude that is destroying our planet and one that must change.

3. Most wildlife trade should be banned and we should protect more wild places.

As noted above, ocean and land use changes and direct exploitation of species are causing an extinction crisis and threaten the ecosystems we depend on for human well-being. In line with our exploitative mindset, we've been stuck for centuries with economic and social patterns that allow unfettered use of wild places and wildlife until there's a problem. We need to flip that model on its head and only use wild places and wildlife if we can affirmatively demonstrate that such use won't contribute to the biodiversity and climate crisis. Tigers and the other animals appearing in Tiger King wouldn't be endangered today and wouldn't require "sanctuaries" if we hadn't destroyed their habitat and taken them from the wild for food, pets, "medicine" and trophies.

To set things right, we should ban most wildlife trade and protect more of the natural world. I say "most" wildlife trade to account for the exception of well-managed fisheries. NRDC has long sought to limit irresponsible wildlife trade (fighting for imperiled species internationally, supporting state efforts to limit trade, providing recommendations to China on revisions to its wildlife law), and now we must go further by banning most trade. In addition, we should support efforts to set aside vast swaths of ocean, land and terrestrial water to rebalance the functioning of our natural world. That's why NRDC and others support an initial call of protecting 30 percent of the world's oceans, lands and water areas by 2030. In China, we're protecting areas in a way that helps tigers by supporting the government's development of a National Park system, with targeted efforts on one of its pilot parks, the Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park, which provides an important habitat for China's struggling populations of Amur tigers and leopards.

4. Not​ all sanctuaries are sanctuaries.

A lot of so-called sanctuaries are dumpster fires; they serve no purpose other than exploitation of animals for profit, and the animals suffer needlessly. It doesn't look like the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park — the park formerly owned by Joe Exotic — is a sanctuary, though it styles itself as being one, so the public may be confused. According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, legitimate sanctuaries "do not breed, allow public contact with, sell, or otherwise exploit the animals that they take in." Legitimate sanctuaries can play an important role in saving imperiled species, promoting animal welfare, and educating the public. But those that do not meet strict standards are part of the problem, not the solution. The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) provides accreditation for sanctuaries that abide by a set of policies, including the maintenance of a nonprofit/noncommercial status. Big Cat Rescue, which is featured in the Tiger King series, "has held GFAS Accreditation status since 2009."

5. Changing our relationship to nature must include a just transition.

Throughout the world and in the United States, millions of people use nature in destructive ways for their livelihoods. I don't say this with judgement; often, people are just doing what we've always done — business as usual — which is unfortunately destroying the planet. Workers in the fossil fuel industry, fishermen in unsustainable fisheries, clearcutters in the tropics and boreal forests, and even people working at fake sanctuaries depend on the current system of exploiting nature to provide for themselves and their families. Unfortunately, it's at the expense of other people who depend on healthy, thriving ecosystems for their livelihoods and at the expense of human well-being overall. If we want to succeed in charting a new path for our planet, we must commit to making people and communities whole. The rampant exploitation appearing on the screen in Tiger King isn't just of wildlife — it is also of many desperate people brutalized by a political and economic system providing few options. We're not going to successfully realign our relationship with nature if we don't provide the necessary support for people and communities to transition to more sustainable, ethical means of providing for themselves and their families.

So, watch Tiger King and see if for you, like me, it informs the horror of the current moment, then maybe think about building a different world when we come out of this — a vibrant, natural world filled with wildlife and wonder, where we orient ourselves around preserving nature, not exploiting it, and embark on a new human journey.

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