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Coastal wind power pushed, but Santee Cooper not so sure

WASHINGTON – The strong winds off the Atlantic Ocean could become a cost-effective way to power much of the East Coast – especially North and South Carolina, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia, a new study released Tuesday says.

The report by the conservation advocacy group Oceana argues that offshore wind could generate 30 percent more electricity on the East Coast than could be generated by the region’s untapped oil and gas. It predicts that wind from the ocean could be cost competitive with nuclear power and natural gas to produce electricity.

Harnessing coastal wind power may not be as cost-effective as the Oceana study suggests, said Mollie Gore, director of public relations for Santee Cooper, South Carolina’s state-owned electric and water utility company.

Santee Cooper has been conducting tests on wind power since 2005, Gore said. That testing began onshore, where results showed there was not enough wind to make its use economically feasible, she said.

The tests now have moved offshore, where results from devices placed on weather buoys “have been promising enough that we are looking at the next step,” Gore said. Santee Cooper has contracted with a firm to do “preliminary design and foundation testing to install a bigger and more powerful measuring instrument in the ocean.”

Still, she said, “everything we have found so far supports the industry belief that offshore wind is going to be at least twice as expensive as conventional power generation.”

According to the Oceana study, “Offshore wind energy can help the nation reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, diversify its energy supply, provide cost-competitive electricity to key coastal regions, and stimulate economic revitalization of key sectors of the economy.”

Opponents say the wind project could alter the habitat, risking migratory birds, sea mammals and other wildlife. In addition, they say that government subsidies tilt the economics of wind farms to give the appearance that they’re economically feasible.

Oceana opposes offshore drilling and presented its study as a better alternative.

The authors based their costs for offshore wind -10 to 13 cents per kilowatt hour – on a 2007 study, but it’s also the target price that the Department of Energy has set for the next two decades.

“In 20 years we assume we’ll use up all the oil, but we won’t use up all the wind,” said Oceana’s Jackie Savitz, one of the authors.

The study concludes that offshore wind could generate 127 gigawatts of power, or 48 percent of the electricity in the top 11 states with the best wind – which it ranks in order as Delaware, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New Jersey, Virginia, South Carolina, Rhode Island, Maryland, Florida, New York and Georgia.

The total amount of wind power assumes that one-third of the areas with strong winds (Class 4 or higher) would be developed in the area three to 24 nautical miles from shore and less than about 100 feet deep.

The Oceana study said North Carolina has the largest offshore wind capacity – 37.9 gigawatts, or enough to power 12.8 million homes. That’s more energy than the state needs – or 112 percent of its need, according to the report.

It estimated South Carolina could get about 64 percent of its electricity from wind, or enough to power 5.9 million homes.

Santee Cooper’s next step is to see whether there’s a way to install an anemometer tower out in the ocean to measure the wind force and velocity.

“There is no timetable yet,” she said. “We want to make sure everything we do is very deliberative.”

But if it works, and the cost of such projects comes down, she said, “there could be a lot of promise to it.”

Staff writer Carolyn Callison Murray contributed to this report.