The notion is almost surreal – rows on rows of mammoth propellers, each blade taller than a football field is long, whirling offshore just above the horizon.
The chances of seeing a wind farm in the ocean off South Carolina might be just that fantastic, even though it’s getting a good hard look.
The cost of fitting the sea with wind turbines is too much to be worthwhile in the Southeast, where only winter winds approach the sustained strength needed to make a profit. The prospect of an intense hurricane devastating that investment is too real. Environmentalists worry about the impact of even this relatively benign power source on species like migrating birds along the busy Eastern flyway.
Other “green power” or renewable energy sources are a safer bet if a federal or state “carbon tax,” “carbon credits” or similar laws are passed.
A carbon tax is a charge for using carbon dioxide-emitting fuels – making energy such as gasoline, oil or coal more expensive and putting the revenue, ideally, into developing alternative energy sources like solar or fuel cells. Carbon credits are essentially free passes to use a certain amount of carbon fuels, earned by conserving energy, developing or using other fuels or through donations.
There’s new emphasis worldwide on using wind power becauseof new technology, an ever-escalating demand for power and international agreements on developing renewable energy. In the United States, the interest has been goaded by the prospect of the widely expected tax.
A handful of projects on land are in operation or under construction around the United States. The controversial Cape Wind project off Massachusetts is laboring its way through building the first offshore project in the United States, a $900 million expanse of 130 wind turbines along 25 square miles off Cape Cod.
Yet SCANA Corp. and Santee Cooper utilities are among those who came away from this year’s Southeast Regional Offshore Wind Power Symposium with no plans to do any more than look on as other companies and countries take the lead producing electricity from the offshore breeze.
“It’s on our radar screen. Right now, it doesn’t make sense for us or, probably, our state,” SCANA spokesman Robin Montgomery said.
“It’s another one of those options we’re looking at,” said Laura Varn of Santee Cooper. But the cost and reliability are big questions. In the end, Santee Cooper will look at “what’s the best decision for our customers, for the environment and for our energy.”
Nicholas Rigas, director of the South Carolina Institute for Energy Studies, which helped put on the symposium, was disappointed, but said he thinks wind power has a future here, particularly if a carbon tax or government subsidy makes it more cost competitive. The state could also become a manufacturer of wind farm products, he said.
“I’m not giving up on this thing. I think it’s a viable resource for South Carolina,” Rigas said, adding, “I think the utility companies are going to drag their feet on this, just like they are on net metering here in the South. I think it’s going to take a grassroots effort.”
Net metering is a fledgling program in some states that allows people or businesses who generate their own electricity, for example through solar power, to feed that back into the power grid.
Bill Bulpitt, research engineer for Georgia Tech’s Strategic Energy Institute, took part in a feasibility study of wind power off the Georgia coast that also hit the economics wall.
“It’s feasible, for sure. It’s just, how much do you want to spend? The quandary utilities in the Southeast are in is people want low rates and won’t pay more for renewable energy. I believe in renewables, but in some cases there have to be draconian measures taken” before they will be used, he said.
By Bo Petersen
10 April 2007
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