Whether wind turbines will be placed offshore to generate electricity anytime soon could be decided in less than a month.
Developers have until Jan. 25 to express an interest in any part or all of four huge areas at least 6 miles out. If not, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will suspend its effort to lease the waters, said Brain Krevor, BOEM environmental protection specialist.
So far, none has. That’s not so unusual, said BOEM project coordinator Jeffrey Browning. Developers tend to work as low key as possible to keep another company from getting a competitive advantage.
But, despite investments in wind-power research, neither of the state’s largest electric utilities – SCE&G and Duke Energy – intend to pursue an offshore lease at this time, spokespeople said.
Coastal utility Santee Cooper also won’t but will consider buying the power if a project is built, said spokeswoman Mollie Gore. The company is exploring partnering with other companies on developing the power source. “We took the research as far as we could on our own. But at some point the cost starts adding up,” she said.
In contrast, exploration companies were lined up expressing interest before BOEM opened the leasing process for oil and natural gas drilling. A line-up of prospective wind power developers, “it would be nice if we had that,” Browning said.
The wind field offshore South Carolina is considered strong enough often enough in spots to drive an array of wind turbines, but wind speeds and consistency are much stronger in the Northeast, Browning said, That’s where the first of a few East Coast projects are in planning or under construction.
Any proposed lease would have to go through an exhaustive review process and be at least a few years from construction.
The four areas offshore comprise 1,135 square miles, according the BOEM. They include a large field off the Grand Strand from Georgetown north, two smaller areas farther offshore of Winyah Bay and Charleston and a somewhat controversial 242-square mile span at least 6 miles off Cape Romain.
Conservation groups have championed renewable energy sources such as wind as a better alternative to drilling for oil and natural gas offshore. But the Coastal Conservation League among others wants BOEM to drop Cape Romain from its proposed leasing grounds because of potential wildlife impacts, including on migratory birds and other species that forage out at sea, and because of potential shoreside services that would be located in the natural area.
The cape is the national wildlife refuge north of Charleston, a vital nursery for threatened and endangered sea turtles and a feeding and roosting ground for hundreds of flocks of migratory birds.
BOEM staff commented on the proposed leasing program here at a public meeting this week attended by more than 50 people, many of whom focused on Cape Romain.
In the short term, Cape Romain “would be the last place a developer would look,” said Hamilton Davis of the league, because of environmental permitting difficulties and that lack of shoreside infrastructure to run the power generated.
BOEM staff agreed, saying wind turbines tend to be located off urban areas where the power can be sold cost efficiently and are sometimes positioned farther offshore to avoid permitting issues.
The league is opposing the Cape Romain site because the current BOEM planning and analysis stage of the leasing process is the easiest point to have it removed, Davis said. “It doesn’t make sense to further complicate a complicated (leasing) process.”
A 2012 Clemson University study estimated that a 1,000-megawatt offshore wind project could mean 3,800 jobs and $3.6 billion economic benefit. It also could mean more than $600 million in state and local government revenue.
Laura Moses, of Charleston, was among a group of people who asked BOEM staff about the state revenue because she thought it would make a difference whether people in the state supported the work offshore, she said.