Site off Outer Banks could be leased in March, but Southeastern N.C. auctions delayed

N.C. COAST -- As the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) prepares to lease the first of three North Carolina offshore wind energy sites, progress on a pair of locations off Southeastern N.C. remains stalled.

In response to concerns about how the Wilmington areas could affect North Atlantic right whale habitat areas and the wind power available to a larger site off South Carolina's Grand Strand, BOEM year shifted their lease processes from the North Carolina to the South Carolina designation.

That will allow the lease of a 122,000-acre site off the Outer Banks, near Kitty Hawk, to move forward March 16 while BOEM and local agencies continue to evaluate the six South Carolina sites -- now including the pair below the mouth of the Cape Fear River.

A specific schedule for development of the Wilmington sites is not available right now, Jim Bennett, the chief of BOEM's Office of Renewable Energy Programs, said in a statement.

Leases at the Wilmington sites are likely at least a year or two away, said Katharine Kollins, president of the Southeastern Wind Coalition, a Raleigh-based trade group.

"It's really dependent on a community and a developer's sense of urgency around development," she said, "and because there's been so much of that in the Northeast, in California, in Hawaii, BOEM's spending a lot of their time and energy there."

Ideal for offshore wind

Industry advocates have long maintained North Carolina's coast is ripe for wind development, pointing to the state's long coastline that has significant stretches where the Atlantic Ocean is 98 feet deep or shallower -- ideal depth for wind turbines.

Residents of coastal towns, especially in Brunswick County, have expressed concerns that wind turbines visible from the coast could have a negative impact on the area's booming tourism industry.

Those concerns are part of the reason the Wilmington sites are under evaluation, according to Bennett, who noted several coastal municipalities have requested a 27.6 mile gap between the coast and the turbines to guarantee they're not visible.

Such a setback would cause the elimination of the Wilmington West plot and prevent development of large chunks of the Wilmington East and Grand Strand areas. South Carolina municipalities, meanwhile, have expressed no such opposition.

Environmental groups such as the N.C. Coastal Federation are interested in seeing the development of renewable energy resources -- as long as the process is transparent and addresses environmental concerns.

"We're in favor if offshore wind, through the permit process, can mitigate any negative effects," said Mike Giles, a coastal advocate based at the federation's Wrightsville Beach office.

The coastal federation, Giles added, is primarily worried about how the infrastructure used to bring power onshore from the turbines would impact beaches and inlets. Additionally, the organization would like to see the state develop a stronger policy to support wind power and other sources of renewable energy.

"North Carolina just seems to be lagging behind in boosting unique and modern ways to provide energy," Giles said, "to provide jobs, to provide an economic boost to coastal regions that are mainly supported by tourism."

Seeking certainty

Leasing of the Kitty Hawk site is one of the first moving ahead in a state without a definitive offshore wind policy, Kollins said. Nevertheless, nine companies have expressed interest in developing the Kitty Hawk offshore site.

"Nine is a lot for a state that doesn't have specific offshore wind policy," Kollins said. "There's no certainty around who can and would buy that power, where in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Maryland they have certainty."

A Norwegian company bid $42.5 million in December to win the rights to a 79,350-acre site south of Long Island, N.Y.

By comparison, the Wilmington East site -- which begins about 17.3 miles from Bald Head Island and runs 20.7 miles southeast -- spans 133,590 acres. The Wilmington West site, which is slightly northwest of the eastern one and separated by a shipping lane, begins 11.5 nautical miles from shore and covers 51,595 acres.

Kollins believes development of the Wilmington sites will likely be linked with that of the Grand Strand site off the South Carolina coast. Wind's energy is sapped when it hits banks of turbines, leaving less energy for the wind farms beyond them.

"A developer would want the option to create the most efficient turbine array," Kollins said, adding controlling the areas directly north and south would make that easier.

Reporter Adam Wagner can be reached at 910-343-2389 or Adam.Wagner@StarNewsOnline.com.