Most Outer Banks visitors know a trip to the beach is sure to include one constant: wind, and lots of it. The kind that turns umbrellas into tumbleweeds and drives sand into eyes, hair, food, swimsuits.
The barrier islands are seemingly always windy, as they jut naked and exposed into the Atlantic Ocean. No wonder, then, that the U.S. government has chosen a huge swath of water just off the Outer Banks as a potential home for an offshore wind farm in the near future.
The site recommended by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management would extend along some of the most popular beaches, starting around Pea Island and heading north past Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, Southern Shores and Duck and ending off Corolla, just below the Virginia border – a 45-mile stretch.
Troubling to most of these communities, however, is that the government would allow giant wind turbines to be built 6 miles from shore, easily visible on most days.
Community leaders fear that hundreds of clean-energy turbines would ruin the laid-back allure of the Outer Banks and harm the lucrative tourist industry, the backbone of the local economy.
Similarly, the National Park Service has expressed concern about turbines ruining scenic views and dark night skies from the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and the Wright Brothers National Memorial. The turbines would require blinking safety lights at night.
No one can say for sure how many windmills might be built – planning still is under way – estimates indicate that at full capacity, more than 2,000 could fit into the assigned area, which covers more than 1,000 square nautical miles.
“Once those turbines go in, that’s it, you’re stuck with them for better or for worse,” said Gary Perry, mayor pro tem of the town of Kitty Hawk, who also was a member of an offshore energy task force under former Gov. Beverly Perdue.
“Ideally, we’d like no offshore wind in our tourist zone,” Perry added. “But we also recognize offshore wind energy is probably inevitable, and that its development will likely occur. We just want to have a say in where it goes.”
To that end, the Kitty Hawk Town Council passed a resolution earlier this year opposing any turbines within miles of the coast. Instead, the town urged the government to push back its starting line to at least 20 miles. At that distance, the windmills, each more than 400 feet tall, could barely be seen, if at all.
By moving to deeper waters, Perry and others say, development would greater environmental to birds and bats, and avoid running into as many shipwrecks and underwater archaeology relics along the Outer Banks. Building farther out, however, would increase construction costs.
The Kitty Hawk council also balked at a test proposal last year from a Spanish wind developer and defense conglomerate Northrop Grumman. They wanted to erect three turbines a half-mile from shore – not unlike what had been approved in the Chesapeake Bay off Cape Charles on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Both projects, though, eventually died.
The wind area recommended off the Outer Banks is within miles of where the government suggested one be set off Virginia’s coast. That site is about seven times smaller than the Outer Banks zone and would be at least 23 miles due east Virginia Beach.
The government also is proposing two more areas off North Carolina, both just south of Wilmington near the South Carolina line. would start miles and 13 miles from shore, both face their own obstacles, mostly about interfering with military training.
Eight companies have expressed an interest in buying leases within the Virginia wind zone, while five indicated a desire to Outer Banks leases. One of those active in both states is Dominion Power, Virginia’s largest electric utility.
Guy Chapman, Dominion’s director of alternative energy technologies, said acquiring leases off Virginia and North Carolina seems logical on several fronts, with the potential that clean electricity generated at the sites could be carried to land and processed at the same place, probably in Virginia Beach.
Chapman also said Dominion is willing to develop wind about 12 miles from land, where a turbine “would look like the knuckle on the back of your hand, even on a clear day.”
While Dominion is willing to move farther back, the Virginia Port Authority is encouraging the government to stay closer to land.
In written comments, the VPA said more than 5,000 commercial vessels access the ports of Virginia and Baltimore via the Chesapeake Bay and that most of these trips go directly through the proposed Outer Banks wind zone.
The VPA’s director of environmental affairs, Heather Wood, wrote that the government, to avert a potentially dangerous traffic jam, should “only grant leases in the western most portions” of the wind area – meaning, those closest to shore.
There are plenty of wind farms operating on land in the United States, but none on water. That stands in stark contrast to most European countries and in China, where offshore turbines today spin a steady dose of clean energy – but often at expensive rates requiring subsidies to make them competitive with traditional sources.
On a recent day in Kitty Hawk, the beaches were crowded with students fresh out of school and adults lounging near the surf. A stiff wind, of course, was blowing.
Few knew about the government’s proposal to develop a wind farm miles away, and most seemed stunned by the news.
“Right out there?! Are you kidding?” said Mary Klingsbury, visiting Kitty Hawk from Pennsylvania with her family. “Why so close?”
Others said the turbines simply represent changing times and the need for clean energy. They said construction would not bother them.
“I think it might be cool to see them out there,” said Samuel Burns, a rising college sophomore from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, who was throwing a football with friends. “It’s something we have to do.”
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory seems to agree with Burns – at least on wind power.
McCrory, a Republican, touts a report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that estimates offshore energy resources off Carolina could generate $22 billion in economic activity and create as many as 10,000 jobs.
But McCrory also endorses oil and gas drilling off the coast – a position that Burns and his friends said they do not support. Most Outer Banks residents also oppose drilling, according to several community leaders.
“Development of North Carolina’s offshore wind energy resources is not just good for this state’s economy,” McCrory wrote in January to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, “but it will continue to fulfill work toward an ‘all of the above’ strategy to move our nation toward greater energy independence.”
Officials estimate it could take at least another five years to negotiate, study, permit and construct wind farms off the Carolina coast. Virginia is moving faster, with a federal auction for offshore wind leases expected as soon as this summer.