Despite a glowing report from the governor’s Scientific Advisory Panel on Offshore Energy, wind turbines most likely won’t be constructed off the North Carolina coastline for at least another five years, experts say.
“It’s not an industry that happens really fast,” said Brian O’Hara, president of the North Carolina Offshore Wind Coalition. “With the permitting and environmental studies that have to take place, the earliest we would see something off our coast is probably in the 2017-2018 time period.”
The report, compiled by the 15-person panel over several years and released by Gov. Bev Perdue’s office earlier this month, notes that North Carolina has the best offshore wind resource on the East Coast and recommends engaging wind-energy companies and pursuing further research to better quantify the state’s potential to support the industry, among other things.
“North Carolina should continue to promote opportunities for offshore wind development,” the report reads. “We recommend that the governor engage with industry to attract to N.C. a wide range of supply-chain facilities and jobs associated with the emerging wind-energy industry.”
The panel also examined the possibility of drilling for gas or oil off the coast, but largely backed off from the idea following the massive 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Panelists said the most enthusiastic support for offshore wind energy came mostly from environmentalists and those involved in academia. Others supported further exploration of the industry based largely on its ability to provide North Carolinians with sorely needed jobs.
“From 2008 to 2010, jobs were forefront and foremost,” said Gary Perry, mayor pro tem of Kitty Hawk and a member of the advisory panel. “Everybody was thinking that this was a way of creating jobs within the state. Wind energy is not going to be cheap, there is just no way that’s going to happen … that was recognized early on. But if jobs could come to North Carolina en masse … that would overcome negativity with the cost of generating it.”
But the prospect for jobs locally is unclear. Any wind turbines erected off the coast would most likely be constructed in federal waters, defined as any parcel of ocean farther than 3 miles off land, making it easier for energy companies to bring workers in rather than filling positions with state residents.
A bill recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives would guarantee that any jobs related to installation projects within a 200-mile buffer would have to go to Americans. But that still doesn’t guarantee that positions related to North Carolina wind farms would go to residents of the Tar Heel State.
That federal jurisdiction also makes it unclear if North Carolina would benefit financially from having wind farms off the coast, an issue also present in oil and gas drilling, Perry said.
“There would have to be some change, just like oil,” he said. “Right now if they were to go off here and discover oil, the state would not receive a royalty.
That was a big issue that did require further study and representation with the federal government.”
So far, one wind-energy company submitted an application to the federal government expressing interest in leasing a block of federal ocean land for turbines, but the block in question – between Cape Lookout and Cape Fear – was protected from development by the Department of Defense.
Currently, a separate task force with the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is working to identify areas that could be used for wind development. When that process is complete, the task force will “open the call to potential developers and also to the public to identify the right area,” said Theresa Eisenman, a spokeswoman for BOEM. “The task force meeting is expected in the spring.”
Still, advocates of the project locally said it’s most likely just a matter of time before wind energy makes its way to the coast.
“If you’re looking at large-scale deployment of renewable energy, offshore wind is one of the best options for the whole Southeastern region,” O’Hara said. “The cost is coming down, and if any federal clean energy standards were enacted, it would have to happen.”
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