Interior’s Atlantic efforts blow south to N.C., Ga.

Source: Phil Taylor, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, December 17, 2012

The Obama administration’s efforts to promote offshore wind in the Atlantic Ocean this week expanded south to North Carolina and Georgia, building on an existing program to tap winds in the mid-Atlantic.

The Interior Department on Wednesday announced it is gauging industry’s interest in building wind farms in three areas totaling nearly 2,000 square miles off North Carolina.

And today, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management announced it is preparing an environmental assessment of a utility’s plan to build a weather tower or platform off the coast of Georgia to measure the ocean breeze.

The announcements come weeks after the administration announced it would hold the nation’s first competitive lease sales for offshore wind in 2013 off the coasts of Virginia, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and days after it announced up to $168 million in federal grants for offshore wind projects (E&ENews PM, Dec. 12).

BOEM Director Tommy Beaudreau on Wednesday said the agency’s identification of potential wind energy areas 6 miles offshore Kitty Hawk, N.C., and two areas located 7 and 13 miles offshore southern Wilmington was a “significant step forward” in the agency’s quest to promote offshore wind.

“We are working with the state of North Carolina, industry and a broad range of stakeholders to ensure that commercial wind leasing is done smartly and in a manner that engages and involves stakeholders throughout our process,” he said.

Each of the three potential leasing areas offers promising wind resources while minimizing impacts to sensitive marine habitats and other ocean uses including military operations, shipping and fishing, BOEM said. The agency said it plans to also prepare an environmental assessment of potential site-characterization activities, such as the installation of weather towers or buoys.

If approved, the North Carolina sites will join a handful of other wind energy areas already designated off coasts from Virginia to Massachusetts.

The agency today also announced it will review a proposal by Atlanta-based utility Southern Co. to install a weather tower or floating platform to measure wind speed and other resources off Tybee Island, Ga

Steve Higginbottom, a company spokesman, said the floating platform would use a state-of-the-art laser technology to take wind measurements at higher elevations.

“Southern Co. is supportive of cost-effective renewable energy sources as part of its strategy to build and maintain a diverse fuel portfolio,” Higginbottom said. “We are working to continue to better understand the potential of offshore wind, in terms of both cost and performance, to determine if it is a feasible option for the company.”

In contrast to the North Carolina proposal, BOEM will review the Southern Co. project under an interim policy it developed in 2007 to promote offshore wind testing. Leases issued under the interim policy last five years and do not allow energy to be produced or transmitted.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in a 2010 report estimated that waters within 58 miles of Georgia’s shore could support 60,000 megawatts of production. North Carolina waters could support nearly 300,000 MW, the report said.

Although the resource in the Atlantic is huge, wind developers face high capital costs, a lack of transmission and the potential expiration of key federal incentives, namely the investment tax credit. Unlike in Europe, where more than 50 projects and nearly 4,000 MW have been installed in the past decade, no offshore wind farms have been built in the United States.

Wind developers must also comply with federal wildlife laws designed to protect birds and marine mammals including the endangered right whale. Major wind developers this week announced a first-of-its-kind agreement with environmental groups to avoid or minimize impacts to right whales during project-planning activities off Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey (Greenwire, Dec. 12).