Two tracts in the Atlantic Ocean off the Wilmington coast have been identified by the federal government as sites for potential commercial wind energy development.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) - a division of the U.S. Interior Department - this week announced that three areas off the North Carolina shore, totaling about 307,600 acres (1,245 square kilometers), will be considered for commercial wind farm leasing. Two of the tracts lie off the coast of Wilmington; the third is east of Kitty Hawk.
“Today represents an important step forward for North Carolina in harnessing the vast wind energy potential along the Atlantic Coast to power homes and strengthen our clean energy economy,” U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Monday in the announcement. “This milestone is the result of collaboration with stakeholders and partners at all levels to identify areas off the coast with great resource potential while also minimizing conflicts with other important uses. We look forward to working with the state of North Carolina, industry and a broad range of stakeholders as this exciting process continues to further commercial wind development in the United States.”
Monday’s announcement came roughly a year and a half after an initial proposal from BOEM that identified the three areas as sites of interest, inviting comment from interested entities. Based on comments from a variety of companies and organizations, including the National Park Service, BOEM decreased the size of those tracts significantly. The original proposal encompassed about 4,920 square kilometers of ocean. The greatest reduction was to the Kitty Hawk site.
Brian O’Hara, president of the Raleigh-based Southeastern Coastal Wind Coalition, said that his organization was pleased at the announcement, but surprised at the “magnitude of cuts” in the Kitty Hawk area.
“I think this is definitely a positive step for wind energy in North Carolina,” he said. “These are the most conflict-free areas and can be developed with the fewest issues.”
Issues include such concerns as harm to seabirds and location of structures in areas of high boat traffic.
The elimination of large portions of the proposed Kitty Hawk site, O’Hara said, happened largely because of the National Park Service’s viewshed concerns. A viewshed is the natural landscape that is visible from a specific point. In the case of this proposed site, the viewing point is the Bodie Island Lighthouse, O’Hara said.
“The National Park Service requested a 33-mile buffer from Bodie Island Lighthouse,” O’Hara said. “They are requesting a large distance, but what we’re going to find in reality may be quite different.”
BOEM did a visual simulation study in the Wilmington area, which determined what wind turbines would look like to a person standing on the beach.
“A good rule of thumb is that, [if turbines are located] at a 10-15 mile range, if you extend your arm in front of your face, a turbine will appear to be the size of your pinky nail,” O’Hara said.
O’Hara said he hopes a similar visual simulation study will be done in Kitty Hawk, and that BOEM will reconsider some of the cuts it has made there.
“In the U.S., we have a lot of experience with land-based wind farms but not very much with offshore,” he said. “There’s more offshore in Europe and Asia. Once we see the first couple of projects go in, folks making these decisions will have something to look at.”
Currently, BOEM is preparing to offer leases for wind farms off the coasts of New Jersey and is currently leasing tracts off the coast of Massachusetts, according to its website.
O’Hara said that Myrtle Beach is “aggressively pursuing” the possibility of having wind farms located of its coast, O’Hara said, adding that offshore wind farms can actually drive tourism. That is what has happened in Europe and may happen in Massachusetts, he said.
“There is a ferry company in Massachusetts that was opposing the Cape Wind wind farm, but it eventually changed its tune to support the development and is planning to provide ferry tours out to the wind farm,” he said. “Offshore wind farms also become destination fishing spots because fish cluster around the structures, which act as artificial reefs.”
The next step for BOEM with regard to the North Carolina sites is to conduct an environmental assessment on the newly defined areas, O’Hara said, adding that the assessment can take six months to a year or more. If the project is still a go following the assessment results, BOEM will determine when to hold a lease auction.
O’Hara expects, based on proposal comments from potentially interested companies, that five or six companies will bid on those leases.
“It will be five years at least before we could see turbines off the North Carolina coast,” he added.
Southeastern Coastal Wind Coalition is made up of 35-40 member companies who are involved in all aspects of the development of alternative energy, O’Hara said. Members include developers, vendors, universities, utility companies and economic development organizations.
“We’re business and industry focused, looking at capturing the economic benefits of land-based and offshore energy,” he said.