The Obama administration has identified more than 300,000 acres offshore of North Carolina for potential wind-energy development in a step toward issuing the first commercial leases there.
North Carolina has the nation’s highest offshore wind resources, according to a 2010 federal study.
Three areas, totaling 307,000 acres, were selected from a much larger 1.2 million acres for which the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management began soliciting developer interest and public comment in late 2012.
It’s uncertain when actual leases would be auctioned. Five companies have expressed interest in developing wind projects off North Carolina.
“This is obviously a significant step in the process, and we’re glad to see things proceeding,” said Brian O’Hara, president of the Southeastern Coastal Wind Coalition in Raleigh.
The federal agency has awarded five wind leases in the offshore Atlantic coast: off Massachusetts, Delaware, Rhode Island and Virginia. It will hold an auction next week for an area off Maryland and auctions off Massachusetts and New Jersey in the next year.
The three North Carolina areas selected include about 122,000 acres 24 miles off Kitty Hawk, on the Outer Banks. An area of 51,000 acres is 10 miles from Wilmington and an additional 133,000 acres is 15 miles off Bald Head Island near Southport, on the state’s southern tip.
The areas were chosen, the bureau said, because they protect sensitive habitats and views and don’t conflict with military operations, shipping and fishing.
The National Park Service successfully argued that the Kitty Hawk wind area not be within 34 miles of the historic Bodie Island Lighthouse, and the town of Kitty Hawk won a 20-mile minimum distance from the coast. Sensitive fish habitat and shipping lanes were deleted from the area off Bald Head Island.
O’Hara said he was dismayed to see large portions of the area near Kitty Hawk deleted.
“If you cut out every area that everyone says not to build something, you don’t have much left,” he said. “We do look forward to engaging with BOEM to add additional areas back in.”
The federal bureau will complete environmental assessments before leases are offered at auction. If leases are issued, commercial wind projects would have to file construction and operation plans and site-specific studies.
A bureau spokeswoman said the North Carolina environmental studies will probably be completed within a year. But the scrutiny the projects would receive make it hard to estimate when leases could be offered, she said.
Even after leases are sold, projects can’t move forward until developers also have agreements to sell their energy.
North Carolina’s input will be limited compared to the siting and leasing decisions made by the federal agency, said Bob Leker, renewable energy program manager in the N.C. Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources.
“Wind is certainly a part of the all-of-the-above strategy” touted by Gov. Pat McCrory, Leker said.
The five companies expressing interest in North Carolina’s offshore win include Dominion subsidiary Virginia Electric and Power. A second subsidiary, Dominion Virginia Power, won a $1.6 million bid last September to lease 112,800 acres off Virginia’s coast.