Bill Franks squinted his eyes on a sunny and unusually warm mid-December day and looked out into the Atlantic from the sandy shore of Caswell Beach.
“I support clean energy, so they would be good to have,” said the Michigan resident, visiting family in Brunswick County for the holidays, when asked if having wind turbines in the near-shore waters off the North Carolina coast would alter his view of vacationing here. “But I just don’t know. I guess it depends on what they’d look like from here.”
That’s the rub for many coastal officials in this pocket of Southeastern North Carolina. While most have said they openly support the push to a carbon-free energy future, they also don’t want to kill the golden goose of their economies – namely the oceanfront views that draw tourists and an increasing number of fulltime residents to their beach towns.
A new supplemental environmental assessment is likely to do little to alleviate concerns of coastal officials and residents worried the development of the Wilmington East Wind Energy Area, roughly 17 miles south of Bald Head Island, could ruin views from their oceanfront communities.
With clean energy near the top of the agenda for President Joe Biden and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, the federal government this month released an updated environmental report on potential impacts of a proposed wind farm off the Brunswick County coast. The move by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) highlights the push to get offshore wind farms, which have been mired in changing political winds in recent years, in the water, with the agency suggesting a lease could be issued as soon as mid-2022.
The new assessment, which is open for comment until Jan. 7, recommends dividing the Wilmington East area, which covers nearly 128,000 acres, into three lease areas instead of one. According to BOEM, the site could generate up to 1.5 gigawatts (GW) of energy, enough to power up to 500,000 homes. Cooper has said he’d like to see offshore wind generate 2.8 GW for the state grid by 2030.
The report also includes additional comments about the North Atlantic right whale, one of the most endangered animals in the world. According to the New England Aquarium, the whale’s population dropped to 336 in 2020, an 8% decrease from 2019. The marine mammal is known to travel through the area proposed for the Wilmington wind farm. The report recommends removing some areas from the initial lease area to reduce potential whale-industry impacts.
‘Transforming’ ocean views?
But the report offers little new to ease the concerns of local officials worried about potential visual pollution from the proposed farm. The draft assessment notes that industry has moved away from meteorological towers, which were initially proposed in an earlier assessment to help assess wind and other weather factors, to buoys that have little to no visual impacts. It is expected a look into the visual impacts from the actual wind turbine towers, which can extend more than 500 feet from the ocean surface to the top tip of the blade, would occur later in the review process.
The Wilmington East site was one of three areas initially identified by regulators as possible sites for offshore wind farms. A proposed site closer to the Brunswick shore, dubbed Wilmington West, has been dropped due to visual pollution concerns. But the third site, off the Outer Banks, is moving forward, with the 122,000-acre parcel leased to Avangrid Renewables in 2017. Construction plans have since been submitted to BOEM for its review.
The Outer Banks site, roughly 26 miles east of Kitty Hawk, also raised shoreline sight concerns when first proposed, including from the National Park Service. The result was the farm was pushed farther from the coast.
Brunswick County officials have requested a similar modification for the Wilmington East project, so far with little success.
On Aug. 3, the Brunswick County Commissioners joined the county’s beach towns in adopting a resolution opposing any wind turbines located within 24 nautical miles (27 miles) of the coast.
“Wind turbines located within the viewshed of Brunswick County beaches would damage tourism and the economy of the county by transforming open ocean views to views of massive industrial machinery,” the resolution states.
Even as some officials ruminate over the potential negative impacts of offshore wind farms, others are looking at the possible economic shot the arm the industry’s arrival could bring to the region.
One of those groups is the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, which was recently recognized by the Chambers of Innovation and Clean Energy for its community discussions on the opportunities offered by the growth of the clean energy industry.
Chamber CEO Natalie English said her organization has yet to take a position on the proposed Wilmington East wind farm. But the economic potential is hard to ignore.
“We are very intrigued with the investment and job creation that might come along with the project,” English said via email. “We plan to learn more about the project in 2022.”
Matt Abele, spokesman for the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, said that while the idea of business friendly chambers of commerce embracing clean energy ideas might not come naturally to some, it makes perfect business sense.
“Innovative chambers recognize the growth opportunities associated with clean energy, and see how fast the industry is growing,” he said, noting it already supports more than 112,000 jobs across the state. “And in some cases, they have been strong advocates and worked with their municipal leaders to promote those economic development opportunities.”
That can be especially important when many of these new and emerging economic opportunities aren’t your typical, more traditional business developments, such as solar farms and – in the coast’s case – offshore wind, Abele added.
With active offshore wind farm proposals for nearly all East Coast state between Massachusetts and Georgia, North Carolina could be well placed to capitalize on the growth of the emerging industry. A March 2021 presentation by the N.C. Department of Commerce, dubbed “Building North Carolina’s Offshore Wind Supply Chain,” highlighted the state’s industrial base already involved in wind turbine production and port facilities that could help it serve the offshore farms. Sites included the state ports of Wilmington and Morehead City, the state-owned undeveloped 600-acre tract north of Southport that was once proposed for an international port, and several smaller facilities in and around the Outer Banks.
“This really is an exciting time for North Carolina and one that carries significant economic opportunities,” Abele said. “And if we can get a source of clean energy and some good quality jobs, it really is a win-win situation.”
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