The day when massive turbines could sprout from wind farms in the waters off South Carolina just got a little bit closer as the federal government issued a call for proposals to potentially lease four areas off the coast.
It’s a step that a number of state and local officials, along with environmental and business groups, have been urging for years. The next step is to see if any companies or utilities are interested.
“I would love to see us participate in wind energy as an alternative energy source,” state Sen. Paul Campbell (R-Berkeley) said Monday. “In terms of what we could do, solar is a player, but wind could be a much larger factor.”
Campbell chaired the state’s Wind Energy Production Farms Feasibility Study Committee in 2009, which concluded that South Carolina should support offshore wind efforts. In North Charleston, where Mayor Keith Summey supports offshore wind energy development, Clemson University operates one of the world’s largest facilities to test wind turbine drivetrains.
“If government leads the way (people) will follow,” Summey said last year, as he called on the federal government to take a leadership role. “I’m very excited about the potential of doing this.”
The possible South Carolina wind farm areas are in waters from Charleston to Myrtle Beach at least 3 miles offshore. In addition to requesting proposals to gauge industry interest, the federal government is preparing to conduct an environmental assessment, and has scheduled a series of public meetings in January.
South Carolina’s largest investor-owned utilities, Duke and South Carolina Electric & Gas, indicated little interest this week in the potential offshore wind farms, citing costs and other priorities.
“Although we currently have no plans to pursue offshore wind resources, we do continue to monitor wind technology and sustainable wind resources,” said Eric Boomhower, spokesman for SCE&G. He noted that the utility is a founding member of the Southeastern Wind Coalition and invested $3.5 million in the wind turbine drive train testing facility at the Clemson University Restoration Institute.
The S.C. Coastal Conservation League applauded the announcement as “a significant step toward making offshore wind a reality for South Carolina” but also raised concerns about some of the areas considered for leasing.
“Although some of the areas under consideration for wind development should be removed due to potential conflicts with other coastal resources, this process should move us closer to identifying appropriate and viable options for siting offshore wind farms,” said Hamilton Davis, the organization’s Energy Program director.
“You wouldn’t put a nuclear plant in a residential neighborhood and you wouldn’t build a solar farm in the middle of the Francis Marion National Forest,” said Davis. “Likewise, the construction of a wind farm adjacent to the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge is inconsistent with the existing uses and character of this important area along our coast.”
Isle of Palms Mayor Dick Cronin said barrier island residents will want to know if any wind farms that may be proposed would be visible from land – something unknown because there are no proposed wind farms.
“My personal sense is that, as with any coastal area, when people own property for the serenity and views of the ocean they don’t want to be looking at wind farms,” he said. “If they are beyond the horizon, that’s probably not an issue.”
Public comments will be accepted for 60 days, starting when notices are published Wednesday in the Federal Register.
“Today’s milestone marks another important step in the president’s strategy to tap clean, renewable energy from the nation’s vast wind and solar resources,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in a prepared statement. “We know South Carolina has important wind energy potential, and we will work with stakeholders through a collaborative effort to identify high potential/low conflict areas for development, supporting investment and jobs in South Carolina.”
The announcement comes as the United States prepares for climate talks in Paris.
“I think this is a very big deal, and another step forward in scaling up offshore wind in the U.S.” said Katherine Kennedy, director of the Energy and Transportation Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
While offshore wind has seen wide use in Europe, the U.S. has no offshore wind farms in operation.
One is under construction off the coast of Rhode Island, and the federal government also has leased areas off Massachusetts, Maryland and Virginia. Two additional leases off New Jersey are undergoing review.
In Virginia, utility company Dominion has been working on an offshore wind demonstration project involving two 6-megawatt turbines. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported in October that Dominion is rebidding the project after costs initially came in “at nearly twice Dominion’s estimated $230 million price tag.”
If wind energy companies are interested in leasing waters off South Carolina, the path from Monday’s announcement to the construction of wind farms off South Carolina could still take years, with environmental reviews and a lengthy permitting process.
“The exciting thing is, they have taken the first step,” said Kennedy.
Chris Carnevale, coastal climate and energy coordinator for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said South Carolina is home to “perhaps the greatest public support for offshore wind development.”
However, it is energy providers who will ultimately decide whether offshore wind makes economic sense.
“Offshore wind is very expensive, still, while onshore, prices have been coming down for both wind and solar,” said Tammy McGee with Duke Energy Renewables, the utility’s commercial arm. “Offshore wind is not the most cost-effective.”
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