CAROLINA SHORES — Eileen Marrone is all for alternative energy, but the prospect of giant offshore wind farms in the Atlantic Ocean is giving her pause after she saw a demonstration of 460-foot-tall turbines off the coast of North Carolina.
A video simulation by the U.S. Department of the Interior shows rows of red lights blinking in unison on the horizon, 11 miles from the coast. The flashing hazard lights are required to warn pilots of the presence of turbine spires equipped with spinning blades over the ocean.
Marrone, who lives in Calabash near the South Carolina border, was one of several dozen area residents who attended the demonstration Wednesday at the South Brunswick Islands Center in Carolina Shores. The visualization study shows how the turbines would appear at night and during the day under a range of conditions. It concludes that the turbines 11 miles out at sea would be visible from shore about 35 percent of the time.
“I thought that was deeply disturbing,” Marrone said of the night lights. “I can’t image how people who live on the beach would feel about that – red lights constantly blinking.”
The visualization study is an early stage of the federal process of leasing national waters to wind farm developers. The process for North Carolina has been underway for three years, but it could be a decade before offshore wind farms are developed off the state’s coast. Still, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory has thrown his support behind offshore wind power as a boost to local economies and to energy companies in the state that make components for the wind industry.
The North Carolina phase is unusual for its size – 1,900 square miles of ocean tentatively deemed suitable for wind farm development – which is far larger than any other area along the East Coast designated for offshore wind farms. It includes areas that are sensitive to local ecologies and economies, including Kitty Hawk, Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout.
“It’s a huge area,” said Guy Chapman, director of alternative energy generation technologies for Dominion, the Richmond-based electric utility. “There’s so much room out there no one could develop that whole area.”
That sprawling area is likely to be trimmed this fall after the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management considers objections by the National Park Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, the World Shipping Council and other groups that warn of potential collision risk for ships, migrating birds and foraging bats.
The United States doesn’t have a single offshore wind farm, but a lawsuit-beset project off Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts could begin construction next year. The feds issued lease rights last month to develop another wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and plan to hold an auction for offshore Virginia in September, with more lease auctions in the coming months scheduled for offshore Maryland and New Jersey.
Bidding for federal leases in the North Carolina phase is at least two years away. But this part of the Atlantic Ocean is especially appealing to the industry because of its shallow waters far out from shore, which would allow the construction of turbines in the windiest areas.
Five wind farm developers have expressed interest in bidding for leases that would allow them to plant turbines off North Carolina’s coastline. One of the potential applicants is Dominion, which sells power in the northeastern corner of North Carolina. Chapman said that such a project here may not even be economically viable at the present time because offshore wind energy is three times more expensive than electricity produced from cheap and abundant natural gas.
Other complications include objections from the fishing, tourism and shipping industries.
“Positioning fixed wind turbines in close proximity to maritime transportation corridors and in the pathway of oceangoing ships should simply not be allowed to be contemplated,” the World Shipping Council wrote to federal officials. “The environmental damage and costs of a single allision (a shipping term that means “collision”) between a ship and a wind turbine, as well as the potential loss of life and property, could easily exceed any benefits” of placing such turbines in the area.
The National Park Service, citing harm to the coastal tourism industry, recommends that no turbines be placed nearer than about 30 miles from North Carolina’s shore, about four times farther than the current area would allow for.
The Marine Mammal Commission warns there are insufficient data to gauge the risks to disrupting “calving and nursery grounds” for the endangered right whale.
The Town of Kitty Hawk this year passed a resolution opposing wind farms closer than 20 miles off the coast.
The visualization study is intended to give coastal residents a say in putting up wind farms within sight of their homes, communities and resorts that include those in Nags Head and the Outer Banks. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management did simulations along the state’s entire coast, with hypothetical wind farms containing 200 turbines in various configurations.
Industry ambitions go far beyond that. Apex Clean Energy of Charlottesville, Va., is envisioning a 2,000-megawatt project, to be built in phases, that would require at least 400 turbines, based on current technology.
Brian Krevor, the bureau’s specialist who presented the visibility study, said turbines today are about 460 feet tall to the tip of the blade, but the industry is developing more powerful turbines that soar 600 feet into the air.
Under hazy conditions, the enormous turbines would be obscured from view, but they would be visible from shore a third of the time. The best visibility would be during winter nights, when the air is crystal clear.
Bureau officials presented a video, complete with pounding surf and squealing gulls, that clearly showed a line of turbines rising on the horizon. The agency also displayed images on the wall of the South Brunswick Islands conference center for residents to see.
“I think they showed the worst-case scenario, but it was very impactful,” Sunset Beach resident Linda Rudick said. “It’s an aesthetic problem.”