As my family drove onto Cape Cod this summer, my 6-year-old son spotted a large white object out his window. It was super tall and had three futuristic blades spinning slowly. He spotted another. Then another.
“What are those?” he gasped.
“Those,” I said, “are wind turbines.”
“Wow. What do they do?”
“They take wind and create energy. You know, electricity to turn on lights and stuff in our houses.”
“Is our house hooked up to those things?”
“Do we have wind turbines where we live?”
I paused. “That’s a good question.”
In 2009, then-Gov. Beverly Perdue commissioned a report to assess the wind power potential in eastern North Carolina. For it, Harvey Seim, professor of marine sciences at UNC, focused on wind speeds. His team used historical measurements of surface winds from across eastern North Carolina and coastal waters to determine that huge swaths of land and sea were primed for wind development.
Seim’s UNC marine sciences colleague Charles “Pete” Peterson studied the ecology of these areas and was surprised that, in many of them, wind development would not affect wildlife, such as migratory birds and bats, nor would turbine construction harm fisheries.
In the end, Seim and Peterson and others helped produce a 378-page report showing that North Carolina had the best wind power potential on the Eastern Seaboard, shy of perhaps only Massachusetts. North Carolina was poised to become the first state in the country to install wind turbines off the coast. Many states have them on land.
In 2010, the federal government established a process to identify offshore blocks for lease for wind power. The feds requested data from a state-based task force to help determine the best areas for these blocks. Seim and Peterson were on it.
“We identified five areas of the ocean for wind power,” Seim said. “One off Kitty Hawk, large areas in Raleigh Bay and Onslow Bay, and two areas off Wilmington.”
But then the Navy said it needed Onslow Bay — the broad swath of the ocean between Cape Lookout and Cape Fear — for training activities.
“Decisions on Raleigh Bay and Onslow Bay were tabled years ago and never brought back up for discussion,” Seim said. “Onslow Bay was clearly the most desirable area for wind power — best winds, least conflicts, best connection potential to existing power grids — and it was instantly taken off the table. That was the sweet spot.”
Not allowing these areas to produce wind power would substantially decrease the energy potential off the N.C. coast.
When Pat McCrory became governor, the state stopped pursuing wind power. Key members of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality were laid off. The task force didn’t meet for three years. This would prove costly to the cause of wind development here.
But Seim’s and Peterson’s research on wind potential and ecological conflicts never stopped. “That first report was quick and dirty,” Seim said. “Nine months is a very short amount of time to conduct such a study.”
Under Seim’s guidance, Natalie Thomas ’14, then an undergraduate, analyzed ocean surface wind speed measurements taken from satellite data. “This provided us with a much more comprehensive look at winds, including those in the Gulf Stream,” Seim said. “But turbines are several hundred feet above the ocean surface.” Also, surface water temperatures can affect wind speeds at several hundred feet above the ocean.
Surface water temperatures vary wildly off the coast. So Seim and Thomas devised a methodology to take these facts into account.
“We examined wind speeds over a five-year period based on measured water temperatures,” Seim said. “Then we recalculated the wind resource measurements from 2009. Turns out, the winds north of Cape Hatteras — where the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Kitty Hawk lease blocks are — have stronger winds at the height of turbines than we had estimated back in 2009.”
Using this kind of methodology, though, is still an active area of research. Seim’s data need to be validated. He and former graduate student Megan Schutt ’16 (MS) also used data captured through the use of an instrument called a wind profiler, which can be deployed to measure actual wind speeds at turbine height. It showed that winds at turbine height at the coast are stronger than predicted back in 2009.
As Seim did this work, Peterson and his UNC students delved deeper into the study of ecology, especially the ocean floor, where turbines would be anchored. They determined that there was a patchwork of hard bottom — perfect for crucial fisheries — off the central coast. Turbines should not be anchored there. But even in these areas, the vast majority of ocean floor is barren, flat and sandy — perfect for turbines. In fact, according to Seim’s research, these areas still by far have the highest, most consistent wind speeds. And these areas are closer to existing power hookups.
Seim said there are at least 75 gigawatts of power waiting to be produced from wind in these areas. That is an incredible amount of power. In 2012, U.S. power plants generated 1,100 gigawatts of power. One large coal-fired power plant generates about half a gigawatt. Same with a large nuclear plant. The wind potential in North Carolina is enormous.
But when the state dropped its task force, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management made decisions to determine the best areas for wind development leases without input from the state. The National Park Service, BOEM’s sister agency in the Department of the Interior, did not want any structure within 30 miles of the coastline. With no state task force, no one pushed back, Seim said, to show BOEM that turbines could be built without lights continuously visible at night.
“This is when the available areas for wind development shrank to near nothing,” Seim said.
Currently, there are two small areas off the northern and southern tips of the state available for federal lease. The choicest areas for wind development off the central coast are gone. Instead of 75 gigawatts of power potential, there are 10 gigawatts. That’s still a lot, but the lease blocks are far off the coast. It isn’t clear if companies would be interested in them.
The bottom line, Seim said, is this: “North Carolina has really good wind potential. It’s just that the best spots have been taken off the table, and the state will need the political will to get these areas back on the table.”
Last year, Rhode Island became the first state to have a wind turbine built in coastal waters. Meanwhile, North Carolina did welcome dozens of land-based wind turbines in the Northeastern part of the state. They will power a huge Amazon data center — in Virginia.
— Mark Derewicz
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