The federal government recently identified more than 307,000 acres off the North Carolina coast for potential wind-energy development, the most significant step toward commercial wind power in the Tar Heel State. But a concrete timeline for construction remains elusive.
“The next step is for (the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management) to conduct an environmental assessment on those areas to see if there are any conflict issues,” said Brian O’Hara, president of the Raleigh-based Southeastern Coastal Wind Coalition. “After conducting that assessment, BOEM will decide when to do a lease auction.”
The bureau designated three parcels of federal water off the state coastline, totaling 307,590 acres. The first extends roughly 26 nautical miles off Kitty Hawk, comprising 122,405 acres. The other two areas flank the mouth of the Cape Fear River, just south of Wilmington. The first begins 10 nautical miles from shore, extending about 12 nautical miles from east to west at its widest point, containing 51,595 acres. The second begins 15 nautical miles from Bald Head Island at its closest point, extending 18 nautical miles to the southeast and containing 133,590 acres.
Officials with several localities close to those parcels said the bureau had not solicited formal opinions on the newest proposals and that the locations of both Wilmington areas were most likely far enough offshore that they wouldn’t impinge on the view from local beaches.
“I don’t feel it’s going to be very visible from here,” said Debbie Smith, mayor of Ocean Isle Beach.
Karen Williams, spokeswoman for Bald Head Island, said the village also had no official take on the matter.
“They haven’t contacted us directly,” she said. “We’re aware of the proposal, but we don’t have an opinion.”
Those parcels were whittled from an original proposed area of roughly 1.2 million acres for various reasons, some aesthetic in nature. The National Parks Service, for example, successfully lobbied to move the Kitty Hawk wind area 34 miles away from the historic Bodie Island Lighthouse. The area near Bald Head Island was redrawn to exclude the federal shipping channel and habitat for certain species of fish.
North Carolina has the greatest offshore wind resource along the Eastern Seaboard, according to an analysis by the National Renewable Energy Lab. That’s due to a number of factors, including the state’s long coastline, high energy use among residents, and construction and labor costs that rank among the cheapest in the Southeast. Perhaps most importantly, 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.
But it’s unclear when commercial leases would be established, though five companies have expressed interest in developing offshore wind projects in the state. And that number could grow when the leases go up for auction, O’Hara said.
“BOEM held a lease auction for Maryland this week,” he said. “There were companies bidding that were not part of the original companies who responded, and I think that’s likely to happen here, too.”
O’Hara said it could be anywhere from six to 18 months before a lease auction takes place, and that a collaboration between North Carolina and South Carolina could make sense for a large-scale wind farm.
For any project to move forward, companies would need control of the site and permits, as well as an agreement to sell the electricity. The details of that process, including potential cost benefits to energy consumers, have yet to be worked out.
“It’s that second part that is what I would call the critical path to getting a wind project developed,” O’Hara said.
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