Editorial: Offshore wind energy worth a spin

Source: By The Charleston Post and Courier • Posted: Wednesday, December 2, 2015

By now, every coastal municipality and the three coastal congressional representatives have rightly voiced opposition to drilling for oil and natural gas off the state’s coast. Fortunately, a much cleaner energy alternative is showing offshore potential.

This month, the federal government asked businesses to submit proposals for wind farm leases off the South Carolina coast. That’s the most concrete step so far in opening up the coast to offshore wind energy.

Four broad areas are currently open to potential development in state waters, including much of the Grand Strand coast and waters off northern Charleston County.

The Coastal Conservation League expressed some concern that the Charleston County location could impact the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. And coastal residents have questioned whether wind farms would be visible from land.

Both concerns must be addressed before any plans move forward.

Large windmills would indeed be an eyesore if viewable on the Atlantic horizon. They could diminish the attractiveness of nearby beaches and potentially harm the coastal tourism economy.

And windmills are notorious for killing birds unlucky enough to get caught in their blades. The nationwide toll is estimated to be as high as 368,000 per year, according to a 2014 study by environmental consulting firm West Inc.

That could be devastating to the migratory bird populations that call the Lowcountry coast home. Any offshore wind farms in South Carolina must be designed to minimize harm to native bird populations. Possible steps to mitigate that impact could involve locating turbines as far as possible from migratory routes and temporarily shutting them down during peak migratory seasons, both of which have been suggested by the American Bird Conservancy.

But so far there are no proposals even on the table for the area, and no offshore wind farms currently operate in the United States, although the Block Island Wind Farm off Rhode Island is expected to begin generating power in 2016. A handful of offshore farms provide energy in Europe.

Even if wind energy never materializes off the South Carolina coast, the Lowcountry will continue to play a major role in making it a more practical solution worldwide.

The Charleston area is home to one of the world’s most advanced wind energy research stations. The $108 million Clemson University SCE&G Energy Innovation Center in North Charleston houses the world’s largest wind turbine drive train tester.

If wind energy were to take off in South Carolina waters, it could also bring a significant economic boost. Modern wind turbines are so large that it would be cheaper and more efficient to build them close to the coast.

That could mean new high-tech manufacturing jobs.

In many ways, South Carolina is on the forefront of clean energy. New statewide solar incentives make South Carolina an attractive place for solar power generation. And the state gets much of its electricity from nuclear power plants, with two more plants scheduled to go online by 2019.

With the right planning and precautions, offshore wind energy would be a smart addition to that already impressive portfolio.