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Environment: Offshore wind plans focus on north coast

North Myrtle Beach is embracing the potential of offshore wind energy while residents of Pawleys Island worry about the visual pollution of windmills in the ocean, a Coastal Carolina University oceanography professor told members of the Winyah Sierra Club this week.

Dr. Paul Gayes, head of the Center for Marine and Wetland Studies at Coastal Carolina, said population trends are signaling the need for more energy demand.

“The north end of the Grand Strand wants this thing; the south end is unclear,” he said. The North Myrtle Beach City Council and Chamber of Commerce are pushing for industrial wind energy development by allowing test windmills in the city limits and investigating the means of transporting electricity generated offshore to the land grid. “There have been expressions of concern on the south end about visualization from Pawleys Island,” Gayes said.

Pawleys Island Town Council last month renewed its opposition to offshore wind towers within sight of the island.

Mayor Bill Otis attended a university forum on the topic. “They see it as a big industrial development thing” in North Myrtle Beach, he said. Pawleys Island sees it as a threat to tourism.

“Personally, I’m OK with them as long as you can’t see them from Pawleys Island,” he said.

Shallow water and good wind off the northern coast of South Carolina invite exploration, Gayes said. Studies have identified eight promising sites in the Virginia-Carolinas coastal region. Five of them are in Long Bay off the Horry County coast. “This is really a place I see that benefits from shallow water and existing technology that is close to demand with a robust electrical grid,” he said. “South Carolina is on the doorstep of a serious opportunity.”

Gayes said studies indicate there is enough wind off the coast to provide 200 percent of the state’s electrical demand. “We are not going to have a turbine everywhere,” he said. “We are shooting for 25 percent.” He said that’s a long-term goal because there’s no infrastructure in place.

“Wind is not going to solve all our problems. We’ve got to have something there when you need it. It can lessen the demand on other sources like coal, natural gas and nuclear.”

Gayes said the sites off North Myrtle Beach have the advantage of being closer than sites investigated off the coast of Georgetown. Transmission lines from a wind turban to shore cost about $3,000 a meter. North Myrtle Beach’s sites are 4.5 miles off shore. The Georgetown sites require electricity to travel an additional 13 miles up Winyah Bay. “I’m not sure why there is interest here,” he said.

Ocean wind turbines are enormous machines. “Picture an Airbus spinning on top of the Washington Monument,” Gayes said. Clemson University is testing a 15-megawatt machine in facilities at Charleston. The shaft is six-stories tall.

Google is bidding to install and own the transmission line from wind turbines to the South Carolina shore. Gayes said European companies have met with officials from Georgetown County to discuss infrastructure. “Groups that get in first,” he said, “will get the industry.”

Gayes said many companies making wind energy components are located in South Carolina. “We are essentially poised,” he said. “Manufacturing has to be at the coast. You are not going to ship these things in from Chicago. They are just too darn big. You have to build things at the coast that don’t exist right now. That’s an impediment. Will they be private sector or by the public? These are tough decisions to have in South Carolina.”