Wind farms just a few miles off the coast of North Carolina could be a reality within the decade. After tax incentives for these projects were renewed in the recent “fiscal cliff” deal, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management came to Wilmington to hear what area residents and stakeholders think. That’s because two of three projects planned for North Carolina coastal waters are in the Cape Fear region.
At a public meeting on offshore wind energy in a downtown hotel, Wilmington City Councilman Kevin O’Grady looked at curved, panoramic photographic simulations. They show a small line of wind turbines jutting out of the ocean and dotting the horizon.
“I’m surprised at the visibility of them at 15,” observed O’Grady.
That’s 15 nautical miles – which are slightly longer than land miles -- off the coast. This is a chance for O’Grady to see how the towers might look if he was sitting in the top of a lighthouse on a clear day.
“I think the one last issue is visibility. And that’s really what this visualization is about.”
O’Grady is on the Wind Energy Intergovernmental Task Force. He’s been going to meetings about offshore wind for about a year. And what’s in front of this region right now, he says, is a tremendous economic growth opportunity.
“I think, for our area, for New Hanover County and Brunswick County, this is a great opportunity to have technical, high-paid blue collar jobs because all these towers will need to be serviced and they’re going to be serviced from some place with a port.”
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, part of the Department of the Interior, is looking at three sites off the coast of North Carolina – two of them in the Cape Fear Region. So how did North Carolina become Washington’s newest darling for wind energy projects?
“It has great, great, great, great wind resources and they have shallower waters that extend farther out in the ocean,” said Maureen Bornholdt, Program Manager for the Bureau of Energy Ocean Management’s offshore renewable energy program.
North Carolina has a handful of unique characteristics, said Bornholdt, that make it ideal for offshore wind energy exploration.
“So you don’t have to be within a vista of two miles of a beach. You can be at six nautical miles, ten nautical miles, and still benefit from that shallow water.”
But the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, isn’t even close to leasing federal waters to wind farm developers. They’re still in the analysis and planning phase.
“But North Carolina for our southern states is really the most furthest advanced and actually is benefiting from the lessons learned in the mid-Atlantic and the north Atlantic particularly when it comes to protected resources, when it comes to identifying sensitive habitat, when it comes to working with user issues such as navigation,” said Bornholdt.
BOEM is actively building collaborative relationships with the state’s academic institutions, like UNC-Chapel Hill, in the hopes of sharing research.
While opponents argue that wind energy is expensive and unreliable, environmental advocacy groups are bolstering the ranks of supporters, including Dave Rogers, Field Director for Environment NC.
“The cost has come down tremendously over the past few decades,” said Rogers. “We’ve seen in Europe where they’ve been doing this for 20 years, the costs come down significantly every single year. And it’s getting close to being competitive.”
And BOEM’s Maureen Bornholdt says offshore wind blows a lot more reliably than onshore wind, and it blows a lot during the day – when energy is most needed.
“It seems like it’s all going to be very positive for the state of North Carolina when it comes to economic development.”
It could be another decade before North Carolinians start seeing wind turbines off the coast. BOEM is in the first phase of data collection. Officials have extended the public comment period to March 7th -- which, so far, includes support from Governor Pat McCrory.
Phase 2, the leasing process, will open the door to commercial wind farm developers. After a company wins a lease, Bornholdt says, they’ll have up to five years to collect data and deliver a plan.
But that doesn’t dampen Wilmington City Councilman Kevin O’Grady’s enthusiasm.
“I’m excited that there is a field in close proximity to the Cape Fear… But I think it’s got great possibilities for the future and for our whole region.”
UPDATE: Officials at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management just announced earlier today (Monday, February 4, 2013) that they are extending the public comment period to March 7, 2013.
Comments may be submitted by one of two methods:
- Submitted electronically at: http://www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=BOEM-2012-0088 for the Call and http://www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=BOEM-2012-0090 for the NOI.
- Delivered in an envelope labeled "Call for Information and Nominations for Commercial Leasing for Wind Power on the Outer Continental Shelf Offshore North Carolina" or ''Notice of Intent to Prepare an Environmental Assessment for Commercial Wind Leasing and Site Assessment Activities on the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf Offshore North Carolina'' to:
Program Manager, Office of Renewable Energy Programs
Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
381 Elden Street, HM 1328
Herndon, Virginia 20170-4817