March 7, 2015
North Carolina

Keep wind farms farther offshore, DENR secretary says

By Bruce Henderson | The Charlotte Observer | 03/06/2015 |

North Carolina’s environment secretary has urged a federal agency not to sell wind energy leases within 24 miles of the state’s coast, a limit that advocates say would largely block wind farms.

The Sierra Club circulated the Feb. 23 comments of N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Donald van der Vaart to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

The bureau identified 307,000 acres off North Carolina’s coast for potential wind development in August. It was a step toward issuing the first commercial leases off a state with the nation’s best offshore wind resources.

One of the three areas identified has its closest edge 24 miles off Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks. The two others are well within that 24-mile range.

One area begins 10 miles from Wilmington, and the other starts 15 miles off Bald Head Island near Southport, on the state’s southern tip.

“The practical effect would be that North Carolina would not see any offshore wind development for quite a while,” said Brian O’Hara of the Southeastern Wind Coalition, which promotes wind development.

Building wind farms far from shore drives up the costs of construction and the cables that would bring energy ashore, O’Hara said, and makes turbines harder to reach for operators.

DENR said Friday that it “fully supports offshore energy development,” including wind.

The department said in a statement that it has worked with the federal bureau to pursue offshore energy and protect coastal and ocean waters, avoid navigational and military conflicts, and preserve coastal communities’ economies.

“We have voiced consistent concerns and sought similar protections for both offshore wind and offshore oil and gas development,” it said.

The federal bureau has said the three North Carolina offshore areas were chosen because they protect views and sensitive habitat and don’t conflict with other uses.

The National Park Service has asked the bureau to keep wind areas at least 34 miles from the historic Bodie Island Lighthouse, south of Kitty Hawk, to keep turbines out of view. The town of Kitty Hawk wants turbines no closer than 20 miles out.

Van der Vaart’s letter said the two zones near tourist-heavy Wilmington deserve similar protection. He said studies commissioned by New Jersey found significant declines in tourism when energy projects can be seen from shore.

An Obama administration plan for drilling for oil and gas off the Atlantic coast, announced in January, would keep rigs 50 miles offshore.

The federal bureau simulated the visual effects of wind farms from North Carolina’s shoreline in 2012.

It found that turbines 10 miles from shore would be visible, on average, for at least half the day on about one day in three. From 15 miles, average visibility drops to one day in four. From 20 miles, it’s one day in five. Visibility drops further in summer.

The nation’s first commercial wind project, expected to start construction this summer, will be 3 miles off Rhode Island’s Block Island and 16 miles from the mainland.

Sierra Club State Director Molly Diggins said van der Vaart’s letter seems to conflict with Gov. Pat McCrory’s embrace of offshore wind as part of his “all-of-the-above” energy plan.

McCrory spokesman Ryan Tronovitch said the governor still favors that approach.

“Wind, just like other sources of energy, will be very important as we continue to strive for energy independence, and we look forward to further recommendations,” Tronovitch said by email.

Brad Ives, a former assistant secretary of DENR who helped craft legislation on wind-project permitting that McCrory signed into law in 2013, said he was surprised by the letter.

“It seems like it went out of its way to make it difficult, if not impossible, to develop North Carolina’s offshore wind,” said Ives, who was pushed out in January after van der Vaart became secretary.

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