N.C. offshore wind faces big challenges, even bigger opportunities, advocates say

By Elizabeth Ouzts, Energy News Network

A new coalition of environmental and clean energy groups is working to overcome barriers to offshore wind, including local pockets of opposition and an approaching ban on energy development in the southern Atlantic Ocean.

An impending Trump-era ban on energy development in the southern Atlantic Ocean has entangled the future of North Carolina’s offshore wind industry with congressional Democrats’ reconciliation bill.

Meanwhile, tony beach towns like Bald Head Island are balking at the prospect of sea-based wind turbines that beachgoers might glimpse, saying the “massive industrial machinery” would wreck their tourist economies.

These are just two of the challenges a new coalition in the Tar Heel State has formed to confront, with the goal of establishing a robust market for offshore wind energy in the state.

Offshore Wind For North Carolina, a group of 10 environmental and clean energy nonprofits, acknowledges the barriers loom large. But the potential benefits, they say, are much larger: abundant clean energy to help combat the climate crisis and scores of jobs manufacturing and shipping turbine components.

“It presents such a tremendous opportunity for North Carolina on many fronts,” said Jaime Simmons, program manager for the Southeastern Wind Coalition, a member of the new group. “It’s a necessary component to carbon neutrality by 2050. It’s also a once-in-a-generation economic opportunity.”

‘Blow me away’

North Carolina is home to just one major wind farm on land, a collection of more than 100 turbines in the state’s northeastern corner that supplies Amazon data centers. A second, 189-megawatt project nearby — long delayed by a temporary state ban on wind farms — is back on track and could begin delivering power by the end of 2023.

These almost certainly won’t be the last of the state’s land-based wind farms: Duke Energy, the state’s dominant monopoly utility, envisions building at least 750 megawatts of the resource in the next 15 years, and clean energy advocates are pushing the company to do many times that.

But most of the excitement about wind power in North Carolina is off the coast.

Enormous turbines — with blades the length of a football field and towers 30 stories high — can harness more energy than their smaller, land-based counterparts. Ocean winds also tend to be more powerful and more consistent than those over land. The result: Offshore wind has the potential to produce enough electricity to power the state many times over. 

For developers, erecting turbines at sea also offers a certain degree of simplicity. Undergoing one federal permitting process — albeit a lengthy one with the input of dozens of stakeholders — is easier than navigating a patchwork of local ordinances, negotiating leases with landowners, and defending against usually small but spirited factions of wind energy critics.

To be sure, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows offshore wind is still more than three times the cost of onshore wind and among the most expensive forms of energy overall — largely because most enormous blades, towers and cables are produced overseas then shipped to the United States. 

But the flip side of this coin is what compels economic developers. If these parts were manufactured and assembled on the East Coast, jobs would flourish and costs would plunge. According to one analysis from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, increased demand has already helped cut offshore wind prices in half since 2016.

These dynamics have caught the imagination of North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat who wants the state to cut greenhouse gas pollution from the electric power sector by 70% in the next decade. A frequent speaker at clean energy events, he often delivers some version of the pun: “the benefits of offshore wind just blow me away.” (It’s a “dad joke,” he confessed to the audience at one conference.)

But Cooper has backed up the pun with action. Last year he initialized a study of the state’s current potential for making, compiling, and shipping wind turbine components. Completed earlier this year, the analysis found North Carolina’s robust manufacturing sector – the largest on the East Coast — make it “well positioned to attract a significant portion of a more than $100 billion market opportunity,” Cooper’s Department of Commerce said in a news release.

In June, the governor enacted one of the study’s recommendations, issuing an executive order calling for 2.8 gigawatts of wind energy off the North Carolina coast by 2030 and 8 gigawatts in the following decade — enough to power 2.3 million homes.

That promise, combined with the economic study and President Joe Biden’s ambitions for 30 new gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030, has increased the chances that North Carolina will develop its resource in a significant way.

“For a long time, offshore wind projects were really far off. There wasn’t a whole lot of traction in the Southeast,” said Greg Andeck, director of government relations for Audubon North Carolina, another coalition member. Now, he said, “the stars are lining up in a lot of different ways.”

‘We want those carbon-free electrons’

But for all the momentum and all the state’s potential, several barriers remain. 

One 2.5-gigawatt project is already underway off the Kitty Hawk coast, and it will help fulfill Cooper’s wind energy target. But the wind farm is in the PJM regional transmission organization and likely to serve neighboring Virginia — which last year passed a law requiring 5.2 gigawatts of offshore wind and all electricity to be carbon-free by 2045. “It makes a lot of sense for the off-take to be in Virginia for Kitty Hawk,” Simmons said. “However, it’s all timing.”

That sets the stage for one key aim of the new coalition: ensuring that as many electrons generated off North Carolina’s coast as possible are delivered to the state. The more offshore wind power consumed here, after all, the more polluting coal and gas plants can be offset, and the more jobs can be created. “We want those carbon-free electrons,” Simmons said. “We want the investment and the well-paying jobs in project construction and manufacturing.”

In its nascent stages, the coalition is still examining the best policies that would ensure just that. One option is a law like Virginia’s. No matter what, support from Duke will be vital, Andeck said. “We need our electric utilities to step up and show leadership on offshore wind.”

Another goal for the coalition is to develop a framework for building offshore wind farms that minimize impacts on migratory songbirds, seabirds, and other wildlife. That way, the carbon-free resource is all upside. “There is no greater threat to birds and wildlife than our changing climate,” Andeck said.

By helping to craft regulations now to best protect wildlife, the coalition can also help ensure future offshore wind projects don’t get held up on the back end. “Some of the projects in the New England area have taken almost 10 years from design to construction,” Andeck said. “That’s a bad outcome for everyone.” 

‘Massive industrial machinery’

Concerns about wildlife aren’t the only impediment to offshore wind farms.

The Kitty Hawk project enjoys wide local support — not least because its turbines will be located some 27 miles off the coast and not visible from the shore. Not so the other wind energy areas currently being contemplated along the state’s coast, called Wilmington East and Wilmington West.

The two patches of ocean are 17 and 11 miles, respectively, from the shores of Brunswick County, generating resolutions of disapproval from the county commission and half a dozen beach towns in the area.

First proposed by the Obama administration and effectively tabled by former President Donald Trump, the wind energy areas have provoked concern for years. But the latest wave of opposition began with Bald Head Island, a village of 230 people with a median household income of $109,000.

“The village council approved a resolution in May that makes it clear any efforts to place wind farms within the island’s viewshed — the territory of the ocean in which the turbines could be seen from the beach, or the Old Baldy lighthouse — will be met with a fight,” Port City Daily reported.

Many of these local governments also fought against offshore drilling, and they tend to stress their support for wind energy generally — so long as it’s out of sight. “I’m not against wind energy, or solar or any other kind of energy, but it doesn’t need to be stuck in your face,” Oak Island Mayor Ken Thomas told the Wilmington StarNews.

But the Bald Head resolution, for one, minces no words warning about the specter of “massive industrial machinery,” visible from the shore, which, the document said, “could irreversibly damage the natural environment and resources that we cherish and that drive our economy.”

The resistance presents another objective for the coalition: educating coastal communities. 

“That’s one primary reason we have come together,” said Susan Munroe, deputy director for the Chambers for Innovation and Clean Energy. “To put out good information — to really do some studying. What do offshore turbines really look like at a certain distance offshore?”

Indeed, last year, a University of Delaware study using computer-simulated views of 100 ocean wind turbines found that most beachgoers were indifferent to installations greater than five miles away.

Other research shows ocean-based turbines may even increase tourism. One study found occupancy rates at Block Island, Rhode Island — home to the nation’s first offshore wind farm — were up 19% in peak season months of July and August after the project’s construction.

Munroe’s group works with local chambers of commerce whose members have clean energy goals or are part of the clean energy supply chain. “There’s been a lot of education and engagement,” she said. “They are just soaking it all in.”

If coastal tourism is unaffected or even helped by offshore wind, its other economic benefits onshore could make it a slam dunk. “It’s something that chamber directors are going to keep a very open mind about,” she said.

One thing Biden can’t do

For now, the Biden administration only has immediate plans for the Wilmington East area, which poses fewer potential conflicts than the West area. It took public comments on leasing options for that plot of sea this month, and it expects to propose a lease sale for more public input later this year.

Coalition members are hopeful a leasing plan can be hammered out and skeptics won over in advance of a key deadline: July 1, 2022, when a 10-year ban on new offshore energy leases in the southern Atlantic takes effect.

They’re joined by U.S. Reps. Deborah Ross, a Democrat, and David Rouzer, a Republican, who spearheaded a bipartisan letter from the state’s delegation, urging the Biden administration to issue the lease quickly.

Still, even if the administration can finalize the lease before the deadline, there would only be two wind farms off the state’s coast, at the northern and southern edges.

“That leaves open a really large area of ocean,” Andeck said. “If we’re going to meet Gov. Cooper’s wind energy goals … we really need to take advantage of our significant offshore wind resource.”

That presents a final key challenge for the coalition: lifting the ban.

The 2020 executive order was Trump’s effort to win over states like Florida and North Carolina, where most voters oppose offshore drilling. Though it isn’t specified in the order, offshore wind is included

Thanks in part to a court ruling that found Trump couldn’t lift Obama-era drilling bans with the stroke of a pen, President Joe Biden can’t simply reverse the Trump order. Congress must do it.

A stand-alone bill to lift the offshore wind moratorium, co-authored by Ross, has gained some traction. But right now, advocates see the $3.5 reconciliation package as their best “near term opportunity,” Andeck said.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, wind energy industry group American Clean Power, and the historically oil and gas drilling group National Ocean Industries Association all backed that route in a letter last month to Democratic leaders.

“Especially on a partisan package, it’s encouraging to see a bipartisan group of trades pushing together to encourage a clean energy transition,” Jason Ryan, spokesperson for American Clean Power, said in an email.

So for now, among the many energy policy items included in the legislation is a little-discussed provision on page 58, effectively removing the ban for offshore wind leases — raising the clean energy stakes even higher for the bill’s passage.

No matter what, the new coalition says it will keep working to educate and work with stakeholders of all stripes and hopefully win over skeptics. “In order for offshore wind to take hold in North Carolina the way that we know it can,” Simmons said, “it requires input from everyone.”

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