A 500-foot-tall, 5-megawatt wind turbine on Roanoke Island could generate tax dollars as well as electricity and position the Coastal Studies Institute for prized federal research grants.
But before that can happen, local zoning rules will need to be changed, county officials were told this week.
After hearing a presentation by a representative of Gamesa Energy USA, a subsidiary of a Spanish turbine manufacturer, the Dare County Board of Commissioners decided Monday to re-examine height and other zoning regulations.
Gamesa and Northrop Grumman are teaming up to build and test wind turbines that can stand up to conditions 15 to 20 miles offshore in the Atlantic.
“There are turbines offshore around the world, but they’re basically land-based turbines that have been moved offshore and adapted to the marine environment,” Todd Hopper of Gamesa Energy told the commissioners. “We’re designing and developing a truly offshore turbine that can withstand the harsh environment.”
The two companies also want to build a prototype within 3 miles of shore in state waters to avoid costly and time-consuming federal regulatory hurdles. An area off of Kitty Hawk would be the only suitable option along the Outer Banks, Hopper said, but the companies have decided not to push it.
“We basically don’t want to go where we’re not wanted,” he said.
In a meeting late last year, some officials raised concerns about the impact of a massive turbine within sight of popular tourist beaches.
Gamesa’s research is part of an overall push by the United States to move to wind power and set up offshore farms with as many as 100 turbines.
The overall height of the prototype would be 476 feet to the highest point of one of the blades, “give or take 20 feet,” Hopper said.
That far exceeds a height limit of 35 feet generally in the Skyco area. A building of up to 70 feet is allowed on the CSI campus. The county would have to look at amending the ordinance to allow the windmill, possibly by creating a special zoning district or some other measure. Also to be considered would be noise and fall zones.
The proposed turbine is similar to but larger than another prototype recently finished at the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment in Lewes just north of Rehoboth Beach.
County Manager Bobby Outten recently visited Lewes and met with researchers, the dean of the college and the Lewes mayor. He said he was told that the project received very little negative feedback.
Seeing the windmill, he said, was similar to rounding the bend on N.C. 12 into Buxton and catching the first sight of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse above the tree line.
Directly under the windmill, he said, “It sounds like you’re standing on the oceanfront. There’s a roar that is there.
“You can talk, but you can definitely hear it.”
At a gate to the site about 2,200 feet away, Outten said, it was hard to distinguish the sound of the turbine from ambient noise such as wind and traffic. Outten added that he could not say for certain that noise would not be a problem on calm days and evenings.
Hopper said the area of the rotor on the windmill proposed for the Skyco area would be larger and the blades would spin faster. Part of an environmental review before construction would be a noise study, he said. The company wants to start construction by late 2012 and have a model ready for market by 2015, he said.
Gamesa would also want to keep the turbine up for 20 years to recoup some of its investment, which Hopper said could be anywhere from $5 million to $20 million. Earlier this month, Gamesa opened a offshore wind technology center in Chesapeake.
Four possible sites were identified – two on the planned University of North Carolina Coastal Studies Institute in Skyco, one to the east and one south toward Wanchese. Locating it on campus would put it on state land so the county would not be able to collect property taxes.
Hopper said the advantage to siting the project in the CSI area is that it would not be near residential areas and it would be exposed to wind from all sides. Much of the area is marsh with scattered, buildable high ground. One home could potentially be affected by the project.
Also speaking were officials from the state Department of Commerce, North Carolina’s Northeast Commission, a regional economic development agency, and Nancy White, director of the Coastal Studies Institute
White told the board the school had discussed with Gamesa helping with utility bills or possibly making a donation to its foundation.
“For us to be involved in research of this kind is important to us,” she said.
Besides the prospect for federal funds, the project could draw high-caliber people and bolster the school’s reputation, she said.
“So from a research perspective and an education perspective,” she said, “it gives us something that nobody else has.”
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