CAROLINA SHORES – At least two island mayors from Brunswick County have concerns about future development of offshore wind energy off the North Carolina coast.
Sunset Beach Mayor Ron Watts and Bald Head Island Mayor Andy Sayre were among residents bringing questions and comments to a public hearing Feb. 12 conducted by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) at Brunswick Community College’s South Brunswick Islands Center.
The session was one of three public hearings scheduled by BOEM in the region last week to garner comments and input on an environmental study that has identified areas off the N.C. coast that could be developed for wind energy. The other two hearings took place earlier in the week in Kitty Hawk and Wilmington.
BOEM oversees the development of the nation’s oil and gas, renewable energy and other mineral and energy resources on the outer continental shelf.
Will Waskes, project coordinator for BOEM’s office of renewable energy programs, presented a recap of overall stages in the offshore wind authorization process, consisting of (1) planning and analysis; (2) leasing; (3) site assessment and (4) construction and operations.
Stage 1 is “where we are in North Carolina,” Waskes said. “We’re doing an environmental assessment.”
Wind energy areas (WEAs) identified this past January by BOEM at offshore North Carolina, totaling about 307,590 acres, are at Kitty Hawk, “Wilmington West” and “Wilmington East.”
“Each of the WEAs are intended to be areas that are attractive for commercial offshore wind development, while also protecting important viewsheds, sensitive habitats and resources and minimizing space use conflicts with activities such as military operations, shipping and fishing,” reads a BOEM fact sheet provided at the meeting.
“Right now if you read the environmental assessments, they have not found any significant impacts at this time,” Brian Krevor, BOEM environmental protection specialist, said during the hearing.
Proposed action “alternative A” outlined at the session calls for lease issuance of all three WEAs, along with associated “site characterization” surveys and subsequent site assessment activities such as construction and operation of meteorological towers and/or buoys.
Among others considered, alternative B would consist of removing the Wilmington West WEA “due to migrating North Atlantic right whales.” Alternative C would prohibit high-resolution geological and geophysical survey activities from Nov. 1 through April 30 due to migration patterns of North Atlantic right whales, and alternative D would consist of “no action.”
Environmental and socioeconomic resources considered in the process have included air and water quality in addition to biology – marine mammals, sea turtles, fish and essential fish habitat, coastal habitats, ocean resources and avian and bat species – as well as aesthetics, commercial and recreational fishing, cultural resources, military uses, environmental justice, land use and coastal infrastructure, tourism and recreation and demographics and employment.
In response to an attendee’s questions, “We have to do our due diligence to make sure we don’t negatively impact the environment,” said Desray Reeb, BOEM marine biologist.
Waskes said a preliminary site plan is another year away, in 2016, followed by another four-and-a-half years to conduct all other site assessment and another five years to start site construction no earlier than 2022.
“You’re really looking at a decade,” he said.
Sunset Beach resident Richard Hilderman expressed concern about how placement of offshore wind turbines will affect birds.
“We need more research,” he said, urging development of bird-friendly turbines.
Sayre said, “This obviously has a visual impact on Bald Head Island “ and asked how turbines would be lit. Waskes said guidelines would be followed.
“I find it hard to believe that this can be done in an environmental assessment,” Sayre said, adding as representative of the people of Bald Head Island, he didn’t feel they had been given adequate notice.
Waskes responded much more assessment would be required before anything goes into place.
Sunset Beach Town Councilwoman Carol Scott, who clarified she wasn’t speaking on behalf of the town, questioned the proximity of “Wilmington West” to Sunset Beach.
“Probably we’re more affected by these wind farms than any other location in eastern North Carolina,” she said. “The concern I have is not only where will it come ashore” but its effects on tourism.
Scott added she’s also concerned about where such energy will go.
“I’ve been told that the cost to our residents could skyrocket,” she said.
Scott added she’s glad to see the proposed site being eyed for wind turbines is now for 10 miles offshore instead of the previous six. She also questioned cost.
Waskes said cost isn’t really under BOEM’s domain. He added costs would be more than conventional power.
Watts said, “Unfortunately, this (proposal) is a negative to us,” adding there is also frustration as well as concerns about accidents.
The concept is terrific, “but when you get down to the details, what’s in it for us?” he asked.
The environmental assessment can be viewed and comments submitted at BOEM’s website, www.boem.gov (click on “about BOEM,” then “public engagement” and “documents open for public comment”).
Comments may also be sent to Office of Renewable Energy Programs, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, 381 Elden St., HM 1328, Eldon, VA 20170-4817.
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