Interior Department to offer wind-energy leases on 122,000 acres off North Carolina

North Carolina could see wind turbines off its shoreline like this one in Portugal.
North Carolina could see wind turbines off its shoreline like this one in Portugal. AP

The Interior Department said Friday it plans to offer leases on 122,000 acres off North Carolina’s northern Outer Banks for offshore wind turbines.

The site is called the Kitty Hawk Wind Energy Area, which at its closest point is 24 nautical miles from shore.

Kitty Hawk was one of three areas covering more than 300,000 acres off North Carolina that the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management first proposed to lease in 2014. The other two areas, near Wilmington, have been grouped with four areas in South Carolina, where BOEM has not yet proposed leases.

Friday’s announcement is one of many steps toward actual construction of wind turbines in waters believed to have vast energy potential. A 2010 federal study found North Carolina’s offshore waters to have the strongest wind potential on the East Coast.

Five companies have expressed initial interest in the Kitty Hawk lease, but federal officials say it would take at least seven to ten years of site assessments, environmental studies, public hearings and government approvals for construction to start.

The Obama administration has awarded 11 offshore wind leases for more than 1 million acres of federal waters, including areas off New Jersey, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, Maryland and Virginia. Only one wind farm, Block Island in Rhode Island state waters, is under construction.

A focal point in the Carolinas will be whether turbines – whose tips can reach more than 600 feet above the water – will be visible from a coastline whose economy depends on tourists.

A 2012 study found that turbines 10 miles off North Carolina’s coast would be visible at least part of the time on about one day in three. From 15 miles, average visibility drops to one day in four. From 20 miles, it’s one day in five. The time of day and weather, such as humidity levels, affect visibility.

North Carolina’s environment secretary urged BOEM last year to keep lease areas at least 24 miles away from the state’s coastline. Wind advocates protested, saying building wind farms far from shore drives up the costs of construction and the cables that would bring energy ashore.

The Kitty Hawk area proposed Friday maintains the 24-mile distance, but the two areas off Wilmington are well within that range.

“I’m pleased that North Carolina will have the opportunity to pursue its offshore wind resources with a 24-nautical mile buffer in place that protects the view from our beaches,” environment secretary Donald van der Vaart said in a statement Friday.

Van der Vaart added that he’s disappointed the Obama administration blocked offshore oil and gas exploration off the Carolinas, Georgia and Virginia in March.

The National Park Service had asked the federal agency to keep wind areas at least 34 miles from the historic Bodie Island Lighthouse, south of Kitty Hawk, to keep turbines out of view. The town of Kitty Hawk wanted turbines no closer than 20 miles out.

“When you’re dealing with the fed government, you get what you can get and be satisfied,” Kitty Hawk Mayor Gary Perry said Friday. “We’ll be more than satisfied, because 24 miles offshore will put them out of view.”

One of the five companies that registered initial interest in the Kitty Hawk lease was Dominion Virginia Power, which beat out several competitors for a lease off Virginia Beach. In May, Dominion lost a $40 million federal grant to build demonstration turbines and is reassessing the project.

The North Carolina lease sale will be published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, opening a 60-day public comment period. Potential bidders will indicate within the comment period whether they’re still interested in pursuing leases.

BOEM will host a public meeting in Kitty Hawk in mid-September, but has not announced a date and time. The federal agency issued an environmental assessment of North Carolina’s potential wind lease areas last September.

The two potential lease areas off Wilmington cover 52,000 acres and 134,000 acres. They’re now part of South Carolina’s bid process, which began in November with a solicitation of interest for four areas covering nearly 1,200 square nautical miles.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

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