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Coastal residents get glimpse of what offshore NC wind farm might look like

CAROLINA SHORES Eileen Marrone is all for alternative energy, but the prospect of giant offshore wind farms in the Atlantic Ocean is giving her pause after she saw a demonstration of 460-foot-tall turbines off the coast of North Carolina.

A video simulation by the U.S. Department of the Interior shows rows of red lights blinking in unison on the horizon, 11 miles from the coast. The flashing hazard lights are required to warn pilots of the presence of turbine spires equipped with spinning blades over the ocean.

Marrone, who lives in Calabash near the South Carolina border, was one of several dozen area residents who attended the demonstration Wednesday at the South Brunswick Islands Center in Carolina Shores. The visualization study shows how the turbines would appear at night and during the day under a range of conditions. It concludes that the turbines 11 miles out at sea would be visible from shore about 35 percent of the time.

“I thought that was deeply disturbing,” Marrone said of the night lights. “I can’t image how people who live on the beach would feel about that – red lights constantly blinking.”

The visualization study is an early stage of the federal process of leasing national waters to wind farm developers. The process for North Carolina has been underway for three years, but it could be a decade before offshore wind farms are developed off the state’s coast. Still, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory has thrown his support behind offshore wind power as a boost to local economies and to energy companies in the state that make components for the wind industry.

The North Carolina phase is unusual for its size – 1,900 square miles of ocean tentatively deemed suitable for wind farm development – which is far larger than any other area along the East Coast designated for offshore wind farms. It includes areas that are sensitive to local ecologies and economies, including Kitty Hawk, Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout.

“It’s a huge area,” said Guy Chapman, director of alternative energy generation technologies for Dominion, the Richmond-based electric utility. “There’s so much room out there no one could develop that whole area.”

That sprawling area is likely to be trimmed this fall after the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management considers objections by the National Park Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, the World Shipping Council and other groups that warn of potential collision risk for ships, migrating birds and foraging bats.

The United States doesn’t have a single offshore wind farm, but a lawsuit-beset project off Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts could begin construction next year. The feds issued lease rights last month to develop another wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and plan to hold an auction for offshore Virginia in September, with more lease auctions in the coming months scheduled for offshore Maryland and New Jersey.

Hurdles remain

Bidding for federal leases in the North Carolina phase is at least two years away. But this part of the Atlantic Ocean is especially appealing to the industry because of its shallow waters far out from shore, which would allow the construction of turbines in the windiest areas.

Five wind farm developers have expressed interest in bidding for leases that would allow them to plant turbines off North Carolina’s coastline. One of the potential applicants is Dominion, which sells power in the northeastern corner of North Carolina. Chapman said that such a project here may not even be economically viable at the present time because offshore wind energy is three times more expensive than electricity produced from cheap and abundant natural gas.

Other complications include objections from the fishing, tourism and shipping industries.

“Positioning fixed wind turbines in close proximity to maritime transportation corridors and in the pathway of oceangoing ships should simply not be allowed to be contemplated,” the World Shipping Council wrote to federal officials.

Murawski: 919-829-8932
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