Prospects for large-scale wind farms off North Carolina’s coast got a lot smaller Monday when the U.S. Department of Interior announced it reduced the areas of the Atlantic Ocean where turbines can be built.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management approved just one-fourth of the ocean waters it had been considering for wind farm development, leaving most of the sea regions off-limits. The decision released Monday leaves open about 480 square miles of ocean, down from the 1,900 square miles that had been considered for potential wind farms.
Up to now, wind energy advocates were confident areas being considered were so vast they could never be all developed. Monday’s change dramatically reduces development potential off the state’s coast, which is regarded as having some of the nation’s best wind resources along the East Coast.
Most of the shrinkage affected the Outer Banks strip near Manteo, Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk. Two sections across from Wilmington were largely left intact.
“I’m a little surprised by the magnitude of the cuts in the Kitty Hawk area,” said Brian O’Hara, president of the Southeastern Coastal Wind Coalition. “It appears to be pretty severely cut back.”
The ocean areas could be scaled back even further if an upcoming environmental assessment identifies conflicts with natural habitats and wildlife. Such an outcome would throw up yet one more obstacle to tapping offshore wind energy in this country, which remains of the most expensive forms of electricity generation.
North Carolina is far back in the queue for offshore wind projects, behind Massachusetts, Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia. A wind farm planned in Nantucket Sound has been beset for years with legal challenges and is not expected to begin construction until next year at the earliest.
Wind power advocates are expected to petition the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to reconsider its decision and expand the maritime blocks available for wind farm construction off North Carolina’s shore. That could delay an already lengthy review process that is still several years away from accepting wind farm applications.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management listed a host of reasons for its decision to reduce workable regions, in response to concerns raised by the U.S. Coast Guard, the shipping industry, marine ecologists and local town officials whose communities depend on tourism and recreation.
The Coast Guard and shipping industry warned that installing giant pylons in the ocean would increase collisions between seafaring vessels and also lead to ships smashing into wind farm facilities.
The town of Kitty Hawk expressed aesthetic concerns and passed a resolution in 2013 that urged that no wind farms be build within 23 miles of the coastline. The federal map released Monday shows that wind farms would be set back nearly 28 miles away in the Kitty Hawk area.
Other concerns included turbine towers interfering with shipping routes plied by tugs, barges and container ships. The National Park Service requested that wind farms be set back nearly 39 miles from the Bodie Island Lighthouse.
The 460-foot tall turbines are equipped with flashing hazard lights that can be clearly seen blinking in unison more than 10 miles offshore.
In the Wilmington area, sections were deemed off-limits to wind farms that have high fish populations or that are known as migration routes for North Atlantic right whales, other marine mammals and sea turtles.
Harnessing offshore wind energy was embraced by Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue and also encouraged by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. In his letter to BOEM, McCrory wrote that wind farms would boost the state’s economy and noted that a number of companies would benefit.
McCrory cited ABB, which makes power transmission cables, Nucor, which makes steel plates used in wind turbine towers, and PPG, which makes fiberglass for wind turbine blades.
“Development of commercial wind farms off the North Carolina coast could stimulate factory development in the state to provide the necessary equipment and bring jobs in that sector,” McCrory wrote last year.
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