Approximately 80 residents from throughout the Outer Banks met with energy experts Thursday night at Jockey’s Ridge State Park auditorium.
They came to discuss the merits and flaws of wind energy as an alternative power source in North Carolina, when a strange thing happened. A thunderstorm knocked the power out, and the PowerPoint presentation went dead. Speaker Chuck Sathrum, program manager of the NC State Energy Office, was quick to note that if the room had been powered by a wind generator, there would have been a flicker and the presentation would have continued.
Sathrum said his office did not back any one project, but wants to learn what the community thinks of wind power. He said the energy office wants to advance energy efficiency, develop the State’s renewable energy resources, and accelerate the use of alternative fuels. The objectives, he said, are clean energy that doesn’t harm the environment and aids economic development. This was the third of three “coastal wind town meetings” designed to get input. The others were in Greenville and Morehead City.
With the lights back on, most residents appeared open-minded about looking into developing wind power on the Outer Banks. Only one local resident spoke clearly against the idea.
Citing statistics, Sathrum noted that California has kept its per-capita energy consumption flat since the late 1970’s, with the help of wind turbines, whereas the rest of the U.S. has increased consumption by up to 50 percent.
He noted that a single 1.5 megawatt turbine can power up to 500 homes, while generating five million kilowatt hours per year. He said that because of its continual winds, North Carolina is the No. 1 state in the Union with a potential for wind-power – especially coastal Carolina, which he called a “gold mine.”
Steve Kalland, executive director of the North Carolina Solar Center at North Carolina State University, said that with the pending passage of a Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard in the state, “we will soon have a mandate for the development of utility scale renewables.” He said, however, wind energy development needs to be accomplished responsibly.
A panel made up of wind energy consultants, an electric power company representative, a turbine construction professional, an Audubon Society representative, and the North Carolina Coastal Federation’s coast keeper then addressed the questions of the audience, which extended the hour and a half meeting almost another hour.
The N.C. Coastal Federation’s Jan DeBlieu, a local resident, stressed the need for energy conservation, but said we haven’t done a good job of it. She said she favored alternative energy and small community-based wind projects on the Outer Banks – maybe one or two turbines to energize the homes and businesses at home here. She said it also is a good way to thwart attempts at offshore oil drilling, and reduce dependence on foreign fuel sources.
Kill Devil Hills resident Manny Medeiros questioned many of the claims, asserting it would take a swath from New York to the Outer Banks to provide the power that a nuclear plant could give. He said he felt the turbines were eyesores and produce only a fraction of the power of conventional energy sources. “It’s like comparing lightning to a lightning bug,” he said.
Conversely, Carl Bornfriend of Frisco, “where the wind always blows,” was anxious to learn how to get started.
Jim McHugh of Zephyr Electric Power Co. said there are three things needed to begin: wind, access to the power grid and local support.
Eric Morrison of Colington Harbor said he would love to have a turbine in his backyard, but wondered about cost and how to connect to the grid.
Kalland said there is already an agreement with Dominion Power and other power companies for “net metering.” He said it’s a “simplified system of hooking up to the grid,” and when the turbine generates more power than the house needs, the excess goes back into the grid. The single meter goes in both directions, and when the meter runs backwards one earns retail energy credits instead of expenses. A representative from Tidewater Electric, which serves Ocracoke and mainland Dare County, said her company also is ready to go with it, as well.
There appeared to be three ways to look at wind power… commercially, for community-wide use, and for residential use. The representative from Wind Energy Consultants, originally from Illinois, said his hometown constructed a community-wide turbine. The cost was more than $5 million, and was paid for by bonds. He said it took nine years to pay off the loan, and the turbine has brought $19 million to the town, free and clear.
DeBlieu said the cost of a 1.5 megawatt turbine is about a million dollars. She said if Dare County, for instance, wanted to put one up, “they’d have to lay the money out.” She said she’d like to work at the state level to encourage legislators to consider grants to locales.
Residents questioned whether the turbines would be disruptive to birds and sea life, if they were put into the ocean or sounds. They wondered if tourists would view them negatively, from an aesthetics point of view. They questioned if they could withstand the barrage of salt spray here, and the hurricane force winds. And they pondered if town councils would zone them for use. One person asked if they would be best placed in sparsely populated marsh areas, like Mashoes or East Lake – or even on National Park Service land.
Curtis Smalling, of the Audubon Society, said that currently turbines are not a threat to bird life, but could be in the future. In Europe, submerged turbines have become fish breeding areas, but more studies need to be done on the underwater vibrations and their effects on marine life.
He said, “I think you have a lot of aesthetic issues to deal with on the Outer Banks, with the 300,000 visitors you get a week.”
McHugh said the Europeans are more experienced with wind energy than we are, and seem to have figured out how to thwart the sea salt issue.
As far as zoning, DeBlieu brought up the fact that owners of the Brewing Station asked for a permit to put up a turbine many years ago, and although 12 people spoke in favor at a public hearing, and only one against, the town council voted no.
Jim Ebert of Manteo noted that there was only one elected official at the meeting, although a forum organizer noted that locally elected officials received invitations.
However, Jockey’s Ridge State Park Superintendent George Barnes said he received full support from the Nags Head commissioners to put a small turbine at the park. DeBlieu nixed the idea of towers in marshlands as not ecologically sound.
Cape Hatteras National Park Superintendent Mike Murray said turbines for park use would be permitted, but not for commercial use, in national parks.
How fast does the wind have to blow to generate power? McHugh said at least 10 miles per hour, and when the wind gets up to 50 miles per hour the turbine shuts down and the airfoils (not propellers), turn parallel to the wind. He said they’d withstand category 3 hurricane winds, then most likely break off, but could be replaced.
And what about aesthetics? A local citizen suggested to DeBlieu that area artists use their creativity to encase the turbines within appealing observatories, and charge tourists to climb them while they generate power for local residents, and reduce tax assessments.
They were just some of the whirlwind of ideas that opened up at Jockey’s Ridge State Park on Thursday night.
By Ed Beckley
11 August 2007
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