Seeking Sea Power

The winds along North Carolina’s Outer Banks are some of the strongest and most sustainable on the East Coast. Scientists are working on ways to harvest that energy by constructing wind turbines far enough offshore so that beachgoers won’t see them, but near enough for the generated power to be brought to shore economically.

PASQUOTANK COUNTY — Take just a few steps onto a North Carolina beach and then look around.

Take a deep breath. Watch the waves crash. Observe the tourists along the beach. Gaze upon the sea birds riding the winds; the sea breeze so strong the birds don’t even flap their wings. They’ve learned to glide on the winds.

Next, feel the winds blow around you. Hear the winds whistle past you. Your experience teaches everything you need to know about the debate over wind energy that is sweeping the coast, much like the winds itself. The winds along North Carolina's Outer Banks are some of the strongest and most sustainable along the East Coast.

“There is a lot of energy in the wind and we desperately want to develop wind energy, but it has to be within the context of North Carolina’s booming tourism industry,” says Donald R. van der Vaart, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of the Environment and Natural Resources. “So the question becomes, is it possible to take advantage of North Carolina’s wind energy resources, and if so, how can the wind energy be collected without harming tourism."

The solution is to go far offshore.

“We’re looking at areas where you can find stable, high-speed winds, which allow for high capacity turbines,” adds Secretary van der Vaart. "Typically, wind turbines produce only a 20 to 40% factor and investors want to see turbines producing much more than that. We think with our wind resources we can to see that at the higher end.”

The first leases allowing wind turbines off North Carolina’s coast are expected to be let in 2016. The Federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has identified three areas for potential leases. One is about 120,000 acres off the Outer Banks, while the other two are tracts of 130,000 acres and 52,000 acres south of Wilmington and east of Myrtle Beach.

But that doesn’t mean wind turbines will be built any time soon.

“Leases don’t mean wind turbines will be built in six months, it’s more like five to 10 years,” says James Bennett, Chief of the Office of Renewable Energy Programs with the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. “But a lease allows a company to start to assess the site where they want to build and determine whether it can be done effectively and, at the same time, put a construction plan together.

All three locations are about 12 miles out to sea. That’s the equivalent of about 24 nautical miles. That distance is important because state officials say the turbines would not be visible from shore. But that also makes the wind farm much more complicated and expensive to build.

“Wind extraction has been around for a long time and it works pretty well on land,” says Dr. Billy Edge, a professor in the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering at North Carolina State University and University of North Carolina Coastal Studies Institute. “But anything we do in the ocean is a lot different, in terms of foundation, external environmental forces, how we connect to the grid and in relation to the effect of that electromagnetic connection on marine life.”

More study of the location, the specific designs and construction of the turbines will be needed in order to keep the turbines far enough out to sea so that beachgoers won’t see them, but close enough so that the energy generated by the turbines is able to be brought to shore economically.

“The economics, the technological, the environmental acceptability as well as any social and political impacts all have to be studied further before any attempt at offshore wind power moves forward,” adds Bennett.

It’s likely wind farms will be in operation off the coasts of Rhode Island and Virginia before any turbines are built off of North Carolina’s coast. But state officials say that’s not all bad.

“The Virginia project will be 24 miles offshore and it will be a small, 24 megawatt facility,” adds Secretary van der Vaart. “And we can learn a lot from that project about views and whether 24 nautical miles is enough to protect those views or whether it needs to be farther out. We’ll learn many other things as well.”

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