For the past decade, the question of what is the “next big thing” for Wilmington has come and gone. Some like that question, and some don’t.
But the economic impact of the COVID pandemic now forces us to answer that question. It has been well-recognized that the greater Wilmington region’s economy is overly dependent on beach tourism.
Economic down cycles have disproportionately harsher impacts on coastal tourism-dependent communities. Our young adults move away to find better careers instead of putting their energy into their future in our community, and it encourages a significant income inequality gap between those who can “afford” the beach lifestyle and those who work to support it.
Now, that “next big thing” has washed up at the front door, literally, renewable offshore wind energy – with it, the opportunity to catalyze a broader-based Blue technologies industry cluster providing a wealth of inclusive, high-paying trade and professional jobs.
In May, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will open the licensing auctions for wind farm development offshore in federal waters. The Wilmington-East tract is part of a larger designated wind area that reaches down to Charleston.
According to studies commissioned by the N.C. Department of Commerce, the estimated impact of development of the Wilmington-East wind tract would create up to 1,000 new jobs with an average wage of $80,000. Over the three years estimated for construction build out, That would be a $250,000,000 infusion of paycheck wages into the regional Cape Fear economy annually during the initial offshore construction period. Those local paycheck dollars will provide counties and cities additional tax revenues to invest in the community amenities we all want to see get done.
So, what is the OSW (offshore wind) build-out process for our community going to look like?
OSW is a long-term commitment both for the wind developers and the community. There are four distinct phases:
OSW is very port-centric in the early stages. The wind turbine components must be manufactured dockside because they are so large. There are N.C. Ports properties on the Cape Fear River and in Morehead City that are being considered for these terminal facilities. The estimated timeline for port construction upgrades is about three years.
Then there is the actual offshore construction phase. Depending on the federal government construction permits, the timeline is three to five years. It is in this phase that the new jobs and paychecks really start rolling in.
Once the wind turbines are up and operating there is a 25-year operations and maintenance phase to monitor and manage the wind fields. This is the time where the greatest entrepreneurial and innovation activity occurs, creating more spin-out companies servicing the OSW industry and creating more jobs.
Cape Fear Ocean Labs estimates that during this phase that an additional $250 million in investment could be attracted to Southeastern North Carolina, within a decade, using the OSW catalyst to drive building a broader BlueTech business cluster ecosystem unique in North Carolina.
During this phase, the wind fields are actually torn down; the components are returned to shore, cut up and then sent inland for recycling. Then the wind field is again reconstructed. This phase takes about six years.
As you can see, this is an almost 40-year process that then goes forward in perpetuity. That requires an organized effort to be “site-ready” so that the full economic prosperity benefits can be realized and aligned with community values. All four phases create deep opportunities for local business growth and create new entrepreneurial BlueTech businesses to serve national and global innovation markets.
Our regional leadership needs to act upon the opportunity. Proactive engagement and policymaking will allow us to influence events to maximum benefit for the region.
Both U.S. and European OSW wind developers are already setting up satellite offices in Hampton Roads, Virginia. They are also already visiting Wilmington looking for partners to do business with.
The time is now.
The Cape Fear region is especially well-suited for BlueTech businesses, making it attractive for existing BlueTech companies to set up operations and for nurturing related startups.
A stronger competitive BlueTech and marine industries business cluster creates more permanent local paychecks that cannot be bought out and moved away, unlike other types of tech.
Almost 300 years ago, Wilmington was founded based on the blue technologies of the bygone era of tall sailing ships. Sea captains were the original entrepreneurs, the merchants funding them the first venture capitalists and their crews the first global explorers.
That opportunity has now come again with advances in Blue technologies. The opportunity of OSW and its BlueTech follow-on effects can give our children an exciting, well-paying future to build a New World for themselves – here.
As the saying goes, “Fortune favors the bold.”
Glenn Anderson is the chair of Cape Fear Ocean Labs (capefearoceanlabs.org). He is a former banker, executive-level consultant and served 12 years in the Washington state legislature.