For years, chatter about the possibility of offshore wind power in North Carolina has hummed among state environmental groups. In the past year, that conversation intensified as concrete plans to develop the state’s offshore resource moved forward through federal channels.
The chatter persists for good reason. North Carolina has the greatest offshore wind resource along the Eastern Seaboard, according to analysis by the National Renewable Energy Lab. That’s due to a number of factors, including the state’s long coastline, high energy usage among residents, and construction and labor costs that rank among the cheapest in the Southeast.
But perhaps most important, the sea floor drops off relatively slowly from the coast, leaving large stretches of water 98 feet deep or shallower. That depth is ideal for wind farms, said Brian O’Hara, president of the Southeastern Coastal Wind Coalition.
“We have a very good shallow-water resource,” he said. “It’s easily the best on the East Coast.”
On the horizon
There are three areas approved for development off the Carolina coast, all designated by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. One sits just east of Albemarle Sound in the northern part of the state. The other two are located just below the mouth of the Cape Fear River – adjacent plots of water under federal jurisdiction with a wide shipping corridor left open in the middle.
During an exploratory call for information and nominations, five companies expressed interest in developing wind installations in North Carolina. One developer was interested solely in the northern plot, but the other four were open to constructing in all three parcels.
The possibility of renewable, offshore energy is largely a positive for the state. But because there are no offshore wind turbines anywhere in the United States, questions linger. Would the construction process or the turbines themselves kill or drive away fish? How would the installations affect tourism?
What will we see?
If construction began in the southernmost parcels as they’re outlined currently, the resulting wind installations would be most visible from Sunset Beach and Ocean Isle Beach. That proximity has prompted concerns among some residents that the tourism economy could suffer as beachgoers flock to shorelines without rows of windmills on the horizon.
Typically, that worry is rooted in the impression that large installments of tall, white wind turbines would be placed close to the shore. In reality, any wind farms in North Carolina would be constructed much farther from land.
“Prudent developers are not going to be proposing putting turbines that close to the beach,” O’Hara said. Even if they wanted to, developers wouldn’t be permitted to place wind turbines that close to land in North Carolina, as the approved parcels of water are miles off the coast. For example, the border of the easternmost block – named, aptly, Wilmington East – begins 13 miles offshore. That distance is key, as it places the turbines in the path of better wind resources and minimizes visibility from the beach.
“At 10 miles and more offshore, the turbines appear very small on the horizon,” O’Hara said. “They may not be visible at all on many hazy summer days.”
But for coastal residents, the turbines could be a little close for comfort. The western-most parcel of water – Wilmington West – is just seven miles offshore at its closest point.
At that distance, denizens of several communities, including Ocean Isle Beach and Sunset Beach, would have a better chance of seeing installations on the horizon than their counterparts in Southport and Oak Island.
“I don’t think people are aware of how close it potentially could be to Sunset Beach, and what an impact that could have on our shoreline view,” said Carol Scott, a Sunset Beach councilwoman. “I’m all in favor of renewable energy. If this proves not to be a major thing, and people are very accepting, I have no problem with it. But if it’s going to have an adverse impact on our tourism industry, then I’m very concerned.”
Modeling the view
According to computer models, visibility from Sunset Beach on a summer afternoon should be relatively limited, depending on atmospheric conditions. But that data – compiled for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the National Park Service – applies to wind farms at least 10 nautical miles out, leaving the visibility for closer turbines unknown. That lack of certainty makes it difficult for some residents to wholeheartedly support the project.
“It would depend on how much I was seeing,” said Scott, whose home has a clear view of the water. “Looking at pictures from different distances, would I mind something far in the distance that, on most days, you wouldn’t even notice? Probably not. But if it was something I was going to really notice most of the time, and that’s what I was staring at when I looked out at the ocean, it would give me pause.”
Though the parcels have been outlined and approved by Ocean Energy Management, there’s no guarantee they’ll be developed as is. Stakeholder input is an important part of that process, said Zachary Keith, associate organizer for the N.C. Sierra Club.
“Aesthetic concerns are very much taken into account when BOEM does their work. If a majority of people and town councils say that it’s an issue, they probably won’t develop those closer lease blocks,” he said. “It’s something we definitely highlight.”
In addition to distance, visibility hinges largely on atmospheric conditions. According to the Ocean Energy Management models, a wind farm 10 nautical miles offshore would have limited visibility from shore on all but the clearest of days. Those conditions are rare in Southeastern North Carolina, particularly during the humid, hazy days of peak tourist season.
That’s important for tourists, who named both visibility and the distance of the turbines from the beach as key factors in planning for outings, according to a 2008 study conducted by researchers with the University of Delaware. Team members surveyed 1,000 out-of-state beachgoers in Delaware, asking if the presence of an offshore wind farm at varying distances from shore would influence future vacation plans. Results showed that beachgoers were more likely to avoid areas where installations were particularly close to land.
Too close for comfort
“We do find that as the turbines get closer to shore, a certain percentage of people state that they would go to a different beach,” said Jeremy Firestone, professor of marine policy and director of the Center for Carbon-free Power Integration at the University of Delaware. “At six miles, there’s a lot more uncertainty as to what would happen with tourists.”
At that distance, roughly 18 percent of survey respondents said they’d head to another beach. But those tourists would still be lounging on a beach in Delaware, meaning the state wouldn’t lose any tourism dollars. Fewer than 10 percent of beachgoers said they’d avoid Delaware beaches altogether at that distance, while about 72 percent said a farm six miles offshore wouldn’t change their plans at all. From there, the numbers drop drastically. More than 90 percent of beachgoers said their plans wouldn’t change at all if the wind installation is 13 miles away.
“At six miles, there’s a noticeable factor,” Firestone said. “But it drops off quite quickly.”
Additionally, more than 65 percent of those surveyed said they’d be likely to specifically seek out a beach with a view of a wind farm.
Boost for fish?
Offshore installations could potentially have a similar effect on the recreational fishing industry. The turbines could provide habitat for several threatened species, boosting their fledgling population numbers and allowing charter companies to ferry higher numbers of tourists on offshore excursions.
“The base of the wind turbine that goes into the sea floor has, placed around it, something that engineers call a scour apron,” said Pete Peterson, professor of marine sciences, biology and ecology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
“It’s a huge pile of very large rocks that stands up to 6 feet tall off the bottom, and extends out a substantial distance around the entire pile. That is exactly what you would build if you wanted to do a restoration of the rocky habitat for fish, including the snapper-grouper complex.”
The snapper-grouper complex is a blanket name for dozens of species of fish throughout the South Atlantic, including red and vermilion snapper, yellowfin grouper and black sea bass. Because of depleted population numbers, each of those fisheries operates under management plans that set seasonal fishing dates and catch limits, among other things.
Those regulations have long frustrated commercial – and, to a lesser extent, recreational – fishermen, who have seen population numbers of certain species rebound without having the restrictions lifted.
Peterson said many fishermen will grudgingly admit they’re seeing more and bigger fish now, but they’re annoyed that the restrictions continue.
If the scour aprons can effectively mimic the rocky-reef habitat favored by many of those fish, it could change things. ease that burden.
“Everybody manages these fish by managing an amount of good habitat, so the logical jump the fishermen take is that this can only help in the sense of growing more habitat, and thus more fish of the sort that are depleted,” Peterson said. “That could ease restrictions on fishing and give us more fish.”
It could also give both recreational and commercial fishermen new places to drop their lines, while charter companies could cull extra business from tourists who are curious to see the turbines themselves.
“For recreational guys, I think it’ll be beneficial for the boats that can actually reach a reef. Customers would really like that,” said Capt. Trevor Smith, owner of ProFishNC Charters in Wrightsville Beach. “When tourists travel, a lot of them want to experience the local culture, and if the culture here is fishing wind turbines, that could be lucrative.”
Access question remains
Local commercial fishermen remain largely non-committal, saying the turbines sound like a potential boon for the industry but could also have negative effects, depending on the regulations that govern their usage.
“I’m not for it, and I’m not against it,” said Adam Donathan, a commercial fisherman based in Myrtle Grove Sound. “If it would just be a reef I can fish, I’m all for it, but it could be a negative thing or a positive one.”
Much of that uncertainty hinges on the lack of information regarding restrictions around the turbines. It’s unclear, for example, if boats would be allowed close to the installations, or if fishing would be permitted around the reeflike structures on the bottom. Because there are no offshore wind installations in the United States, comparisons and projections are difficult. Frequently, those estimates are based on the regulations that apply to free-standing oil derricks in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We don’t have a single one of these things standing anywhere in this country, so we’re still waiting for the test case. A lot of the issues that apply here apply to oil platforms in the Gulf, so that’s our best guess,” Peterson said.
It could be nearly a decade before officials have answers. Experts have estimated that it could take more than a year for leases to be officially issued, and more regulatory steps, including an environmental impact assessment, have to be completed before construction can begin. Still, for environmental activists who have spent years advocating for offshore wind, having even a vague timeline on the horizon is a victory.
“It’s not a question of ‘if’ development will happen,” O’Hara said, “but rather when and where it will happen.”
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