Scientists, lawmakers and utility executives from three states will gather in Charleston this month to debate the merits of offshore wind turbines, a technology that is revolutionizing the energy industry in Europe but running into resistance in the United States.
A lot of breezes could be harnessed and put to use as an alternative power source if generators between 98 and nearly 500 feet tall were placed 8 to 10 nautical miles off the coast, said Nicholas Rigas, director of S.C. Institute for Energy Studies, a state-chartered research group based in Clemson.
“It is very encouraging and the political winds are right,” Rigas said. “It’s the right time for South Carolina to start talking about this stuff.”
Clemson University, Coastal Carolina University, the Georgia Institute of Technology and North Carolina State University are organizing the symposium Feb. 26 and 27 at the Embassy Suites Historic District.
The 150 spots have already been claimed, in equal parts by scientists, government officials, real estate developers and utility executives, Rigas said.
“It’s really geared up for the key decision-makers of the three states to see what is the potential of offshore wind, in terms not just of energy, but economic development,” he said. “We’re hoping to begin the education process.”
The state spends $18 billion a year on energy, nearly half of which goes to companies that own pipelines, coal mines and gas refineries outside of state borders, according to Rigas’ group. He said that the assembly and maintenance of any future offshore turbines could pay off big for Charleston port facilities.
As talk of global warming and volatile oil prices heats up, a rash of offshore turbines is spreading off the coasts of European nations. Most notably, Ireland plans to get 80 percent of its power from water-sweeping winds by 2020.
The turbines have not turned so smoothly, however, in the United States. A number of projects have been stalled by opposition from coastal landowners and tourism promoters. Opponents have argued that turbines are unsightly, kill migratory birds and interfere with aviation radar, though all of those assertions have been contested.
Santee Cooper, a state-owned utility that is a sponsor of the symposium, has not endorsed or refuted the prospect of offshore turbines, but it is looking into the technology, said spokeswoman Laura Varn.
“It’s a natural extension of all that we’re doing with renewables,” she said. “This was a great way to get the best minds on the subject together.”
Environmentalists, however, said Moncks Corner-based Santee Cooper and other utilities have been slow to consider renewable energy initiatives like wind power.
A number of federal lawmakers are pushing to require utilities to generate a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable resources by 2020. Since Congress came close to passing similar legislation last year, Southeastern utilities have warmed to the idea of wind turbines and solar panels, according to Stephen Smith, executive director of the not-for-profit Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
“The utilities have historically been very happy to perpetuate the myth that the Southeast does not have viable wind,” Smith said. “Most southern utilities are just very comfortable with burning stuff.”
Wind power is picking up momentum elsewhere in the nation. In recent years, huge turbine farms were built in California and Colorado, and in 2001 wind surpassed solar as a domestic energy producer. Offshore turbine projects are now moving forward in Long Island Sound and parts of the Gulf of Mexico off Texas.
Areas off the South Carolina coast are potentially fertile ground for turbines, based on a study of wind strength recently commissioned by the state. On an average day, winds blowing off Charleston-area beaches range from 13 to 19 miles per hour. Also, the ocean is relatively shallow, even 60 to 70 miles offshore.
By Kyle Stock
The Post and Courier
17 February 2007