Migratory birds, sea turtles, jobs and aesthetics were among the issues raised Tuesday night at a presentation by Mark Leyland, senior vice president of offshore wind projects for Baryonyx Corporation, which plans to build offshore wind farms off the South Texas coast – including South Padre Island.
Leyland discussed details of the company’s proposal, speaking for about an hour before taking questions from the audience, which was made up of several dozen curious and/or concerned residents assembled in a large classroom at the International Technology, Education and Commerce Center. The event was moderated by John Cook, a communications professor from the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College.
Leyland began his talk with some background on Austin-based Baryonyx, formed in 2009, and its proposed venture. He was part of Eclipse Energy, a British company responsible for developing the groundbreaking Ormonde wind farm project in the Irish Sea. Eclipse was sold to Vattenhall, Sweden’s state-owned power company, which is nearing completion on the project.
The Ormonde project uses the world’s largest wind turbines, rated at 5 megawatts each though capable of producing 6 megawatts. One megawatt equals 1 million watts. Baryonyx would use the same turbines in Texas but on a much larger scale. The Ormonde project is 30 turbines on 2,500 acres. If fully developed, Baryonyx’s South Texas project – dubbed Rio Grande North and Rio Grande South and totaling roughly 41,000 offshore acres – would feature rows of more than 300 turbines, each set of 50 turbines taking two years to erect. From the base of the turbine to the top of the rotor is more than 500 feet. The turbines would be located no nearer than five miles from the coast, Leyland said.
The company has plans for another wind farm off Corpus Christi, where it holds a 26,000-acre lease. The only other offshore wind project in the United States is known as Cape Wind, being developed in Nantucket Sound in the Northeast. Baryonyx, whose CEO Ian Hatten founded Eclipse, is the only group working in the United States with actual experience developing a wind farm – the Ormonde project.
“I won’t say we know 100 percent what we’re doing, but I will say we’ve got a pretty good idea,” Leyland said.
Among the advantages of offshore wind power, he said, is that – unlike oil and gas – the cost of the power generated is predictable over decades. Leyland said offshore wind wouldn’t replace petroleum but rather augment it. For the United States, which contains less than 5 percent of the world’s population but consumes 25 percent of the world’s energy, offshore wind should be considered vital.
“It’s a national security issue,” Leyland said. “You need to try and find domestically generated fuel sources. … This is not a speculative venture in my opinion. This is an essential thing we have to do.”
Power to the people
In addition, offshore wind doesn’t contribute to global warming, sea level rise, sea acidification or air pollution, he said. Why Texas and, specifically, South Texas? The strongest winds on the Gulf coast are here, Leyland said. Plus, the Texas coast – unlike the Northeast – already has an established industry devoted to offshore engineering, construction and fabrication, as well as the ports and harbors to support it. Leyland said offshore wind stands to give a big boost to that industry as offshore oil exploration “falls away.” While the turbines themselves probably would not be built here, turbine construction accounts for only about 40 percent of an offshore wind project, he said. The lion’s share of work lies in fabrication and erection of foundations and substation platforms, cable laying and maintenance, design and engineering, etc.
Baryonyx submitted its project permit application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in June. The public comment period ends in August. Leyland said he fully expects at the end of that period for the Corps to call for an environmental impact statement, the most thorough type of environmental review the Corps can demand.
Leyland said the project deserves a full EIS, which will examine the many issues including the impact on migratory birds, bats, sea turtles and other marine life. Some environmentalists have expressed concern that the project is being pushed through without enough study, though Leyland stressed repeatedly during his presentation that Baryonyx is “not in a rush.”
The EIS will take two years to perform and a final draft won’t be submitted to the Corps until probably the first quarter of 2014. Construction wouldn’t begin until 2015 at the earliest, Leyland said. One member of the audience questioned whether two years was long enough to gauge the environmental impact. Leyland responded that the monitoring of migratory birds and other animals would not stop after the permit was approved but would continue during and after construction.
Another questioner wanted to know the effect on shrimpers, noting that the wind farm would occupy prime fishing waters, and was also concerned about the impact of spinning rotors on boats’ radar systems. Leyland said commercial fishing would be allowed within the leases and didn’t believe radar would be compromised, though the matter would need to be studied. He was also asked about the impact on sea turtles of electromagnetism from buried cables. Sea turtles use the earth’s electromagnetic field to navigate. Leyland agreed that would also have to be studied closely.
“Clearly sea turtles are a major issue,” he said. “We need to make sure they’re not going to be impacted.”
Leyland assured another audience member that safety of workers during construction and maintenance was a top priority, and that the project’s design review would spell out safety measures at every step. Wind farms are unmanned most of the time, he noted, with the exception of construction, maintenance and repair. One questioner accused Leyland of being “evasive” on the subject of job creation – a charge Leyland disputed with some heat, insisting that a project of this magnitude stood to benefit the region substantially in terms of jobs and economic development.
“We’re talking thousands of jobs,” he said.
The fact that wind turbines would be visible off the coast of South Padre Island was a bone of contention for at least a few in attendance. One man, a SPI resident and self-described artist, expressed worry that the turbines would spoil the pristine seascape. Someone else put it plainly, declaring, “We don’t want to look at those contraptions.” Leyland, in a previous interview with The Herald, noted that some people find wind turbines hideous and others think they’re beautiful.
He dismissed the idea that Baryonyx was trying to do an end run around federal regulations by building its wind farms in state waters. All the same federal regulations are involved, though there’s much more “clarity” in working with the state compared to the federal government, he said.
In addition to the long list of state agencies the project must satisfy, Baryonyx is also bound by the regulations of more than a dozen federal agencies, Leyland said. Besides the animal and environmental issues, impacts on shipping and navigation, fishing, aviation and other factors would have to be considered during the course of research, he said.
“We want to make sure that the issues are properly investigated and quantified before we move forward,” Leyland said.
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