Offshore Wind: A Southern Thing?

The Southeast has the hospitable weather and the shallow waters—but does it have the will?

Block Island Wind Farm, off the Rhode Island coast

Credit: Dennis Schroeder/NREL

The offshore wind industry has waded into the waters off Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. With a $9.1 million bid in a competitive federal government auction in March, Avangrid Renewables beat out other energy companies for a chance to build the Southeast’s first-ever offshore wind farm.

That same company kicked off the region’s inland wind industry with the Amazon Wind project in North Carolina, which came online in December. Now, it has its sights on the sea—about 191 square miles of it.

“I find it very encouraging how many parties participated in the sale, how many rounds of bidding took place, and how the bid price was so much higher than anyone expected,” says Katharine Kollins, president of the Southeastern Wind Coalition.

Avangrid wants to eventually spin up to 1,468 megawatts of electricity from the Outer Banks’ steady breezes—a goal that will be at least a decade in the making. Over the next five years, the company will undertake a site assessment that involves biological and geophysical surveys to confirm the winds are strong and reliable and that the seafloor is relatively flat and sandy, which is ideal for turbine installation. Populations of birds, bats, marine mammals, turtles, and fish will also be tracked to avoid raising turbines in sensitive habitats.

Then Avangrid will submit a plan to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which oversees wind, oil, and gas projects in federal waters. If approved, Avangrid will have five more years to develop another plan that lays out the nitty-gritty details of how the farm will look, function, and be constructed. The final step in the process is a 25-year commercial lease.

Turbines off Kitty Hawk, of course, wouldn’t be alone along the Eastern Seaboard. In coastal waters from Massachusetts to Virginia, eight other wind leases have sprung up since 2012, including the nation’s first offshore wind farm, off Block Island, Rhode Island. The second one is rising off the coast of Long Island.

According to projections by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Wind Vision, the industry should continue to gain momentum. The report says offshore wind could contribute as much as 7 percent of total U.S. energy production by 2050. Most will come from the North, but about 20 percent could be produced below the Mason–Dixon Line.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Outer Banks, North Carolina
Credit: iStock

“Offshore wind can definitely participate in the Southeast and should be considered in its renewable energy mix,” says Walter Musial, manager of offshore wind at the National Renewable Energy Lab. What makes the region so attractive? First, Musial says, the entire Atlantic coast has the shallow water necessary for affixing a turbine to the ocean floor. Second, the South has an extended period of good weather each year for construction and maintenance. Third, it’s closer to the Gulf of Mexico, which harbors the ships used to construct and maintain the farms, and to the manufacturers in the Gulf region that make the components of a turbine’s foundation.

“The Gulf produced the foundations for the Block Island project, utilizing offshore oil and gas manufacturing techniques,” says Kollins. “They [the South] could definitely leverage that experience and knowledge.”

There are some drawbacks, though. Wind speeds to the south in South Carolina and Georgia aren’t as strong, and they dwindle almost completely by the time they hit the Florida coast. And, unlike the states of New Jersey, Maryland, and New York, which have clean energy mandates that require a high percentage of renewables, the South balks at such legislative rules, particularly when they’re green. North Carolina is the sole state with a renewable portfolio standard, and even that gets beaten up every congressional session.

Cost is also a factor. Offshore wind is new in the United States, so the price is higher than that of other renewables. However, technological improvements and streamlined production in Europe—where offshore wind is thriving—have led to dramatic cost reductions over the past year. For the United States to realize similar conditions, it would need to foster a pipeline of offshore wind projects and a supply chain for manufacturing turbines and other components (which, ahem, would also create jobs). Kit Kennedy, director of NRDC’s Energy & Transportation program, wrote in a recent blog post, “In North Carolina alone, offshore wind power can create as many as 1,450 new jobs by 2022; 10 times that many are possible in the state by 2050.”

But the industry is already seeing progress here. For example, New York State selected its upcoming offshore project over other renewable projects for eastern Long Island because it was the most cost-effective option.

“I just don’t see an appetite in the Southeast in general to pay a premium,” says Kollins, who believes the South will wait and see how low the price will dip in the Northeast before getting onboard. “It’s a long-term play triggered when the price of offshore wind, which is declining rapidly, becomes closer to that of the low electricity prices in the Southeast.

Still, the eventual benefits outweigh the negatives. Even Georgia and South Carolina, which both have new nuclear reactors under construction, haven’t dismissed offshore wind. US Wind, a company that holds leases in Maryland and New Jersey, is looking at an area off Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. “We’re very interested in South Carolina and have received tremendous community support,” says Paul Rich, US Wind’s director of project development. “We’re the sole developer of interest.”

Meanwhile in Georgia, Southern Company has started the process of leasing several blocks off Tybee Island near Savannah, says Tim Echols of the Georgia Public Service Commission. “Because of all the regulation required to site offshore wind,” he says, “it will be in the 2030s before we see wind off the Georgia shore."

In the end, it may be jealousy that causes the South to take the plunge. If the Northeast becomes a mecca for offshore wind, the economic benefits will be worthy of envy. But by then, there’s a risk that the South may have missed the boat. For while small components of the supply chain will pop up anywhere offshore wind develops, the strongest links—the manufacturing of large components (nacelles, towers, and blades), which are transportable only by water—will go where the majority of wind farms are, in Yankee territory.

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