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Onslow Bay looked at for first North Carolina wind farm

The federal government has received the first formal application for a potential wind-energy project off the North Carolina coast, and it’s not too far from some New Hanover and Pender county beaches.

pex Wind Energy is requesting to lease 213 square miles of ocean, all more than 20 miles off the coast, to explore the area’s feasibility for a wind farm.

The Onslow Bay area was selected because of its lack of environmental and other conflicts and its strong, sustained winds, states the July application to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation, and Enforcement, which is the successor to the Mineral Management Service.

But the possible installation of massive wind turbines generating hundreds of megawatts and reaching several hundred feet into the air is still years off.

“We’re still at the baby-step stage here,” said John Bane, a professor of marine sciences with the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and an advisor to Apex.

If Washington approves the request, a five-year site assessment study will take place to assess the area’s compatibility for a wind farm. The company would then have to go back to the federal regulators to win approval to actually start construction.

Still, Apex’s application is a milestone of sorts as North Carolina strives to diversify its energy production away from dirty fuels like coal toward cleaner and renewable – albeit often more expensive – sources like natural gas, wind and solar.

“I think this is the perfect time for North Carolina to move forward to consider wind energy,” said Environmental Defense Fund’s Doug Rader, who also was co-chairman of a special state legislative committee that looked into offshore energy exploration. “We badly need a specific project to see exactly what the pros and cons are for alternative offshore energy, and hopefully this will help us do that.”

Offshore wind power presents a much greater challenge than building a power plant onshore.

Applicants have to navigate a myriad of potential impacts, ranging from environmental and visual “pollution” to avoiding shipping lanes and military training areas.

But first, there’s finding a reliable source of wind.

A detailed study by UNC researchers last year showed that there are areas both offshore and in the state’s extensive sounds that are feasible for industrial-level wind farms.

Apex piggybacked on that research with its own study, which determined four areas along the coast that had strong commercial wind-farm potential.

The Onslow Bay site was selected as the best, beating among other areas the waters off Frying Pan Shoals, in part because the electricity from there could theoretically be brought ashore at either the Wilmington or Morehead City areas.

There’s also the small hurdle that are currently no working offshore wind farms in the country, although several are in the planning stages.

But Bane said there are plenty of turbines in use both onshore in the United States, primarily in the Midwest and West, and offshore in Europe.

“So it’s not uncharted waters in terms of technology,” he said. “We’re not starting off from ground zero by any means.”

But Apex’s application comes as North Carolina is still struggling on just how to approve alternative energy projects.

Federal regulators have made it clear that they want local government and stakeholder involvement and approval for any offshore projects – even if they are in federal waters, which start 3 miles offshore.

Bane stressed that Apex was committed to that process.

Frank Tursi, assistant director with the N.C. Coastal Federation, said the environmental group was in a wait-and-see mode to see what exactly the project would entail and what potential impacts might be generated

“We certainly understand the need for renewable energy sources,” he said on Thursday afternoon. “But we’re still trying to learn like everyone else what exactly is involved.”