What Happened to Wilmington’s Offshore Wind Plan?
BY: CAMMIE BELLAMY
BRUNSWICK COUNTY -- Nearly five years ago to the day, federal officials announced a “milestone” for wind energy development -- right off the North Carolina coast.
A study identified more than 300,000 acres of offshore N.C. area that the U.S. Department of Interior said was ideal for wind turbines. Nearly two-thirds sat within 20 nautical miles of Brunswick County, in sites known as the Wilmington Wind Areas.
Despite the excitement in Washington, D.C., the proposal drew concern -- even resolutions in opposition -- in Southeastern North Carolina.
Today, work is underway to develop a wind farm off the Outer Banks. But Wilmington’s prospects for offshore turbines appear indefinitely stalled.
The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has not taken a major step on the Wilmington areas since 2017. And Katharine Kollins, president of the Raleigh-based Southeastern Wind Coalition, said industry leaders are focused on areas to the north.
“It’s a combination of commercial interest and BOEM,” she said. “I think BOEM has had so many leases in the northeast that they’ve slowed down a little bit on the leasing front, because now they’re in a position that they need to provide services.”
“I don’t know that we’ll see any lease areas in the path forward that BOEM outlined,” she added.
Aug. 11, 2014: U.S. Department of the Interior announced three offshore wind energy areas, including two near off New Hanover and Brunswick counties.
Jan. 22, 2015: BOEM completed its environmental assessment, supporting wind leases off the North Carolina coast.
Fall 2015: Brunswick County municipalities, including Sunset Beach and Bald Head Island, passed resolutions opposing the wind leases.
March 16, 2017: BOEM leased the Kitty Hawk Wind Area. Construction is expected to begin in 2024.
April 28, 2017: President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13,795, reopening the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf to potential oil and gas drilling.
2017: BOEM combined the Wilmington wind areas with South Carolina’s. The last movement on South Carolina’s wind areas occured in January 2016, when BOEM completed a public comment period.
In 2017, while a Spanish energy conglomerate was securing its lease on the Kitty Hawk offshore wind site, BOEM combined the Wilmington areas with its South Carolina areas.
BOEM spokesman Stephen Boutwell confirmed that two wind energy companies -- New Jersey-based Fishermen’s Energy, LLC and Maryland-based U.S. Wind, Inc. -- voiced interest in 2015 in developing the South Carolina areas, which, at the time, did not include Wilmington.
But Boutwell wrote in an email that BOEM will take another look at local Wind Energy Areas (WEAs) in the coming months.
“Moving forward, recognizing that the offshore wind industry has evolved in recent years, BOEM will work with both North and South Carolina using a regional model to plan and analyze potential future offshore wind leasing in the Carolinas,” Boutwell wrote. “We expect to establish WEAs later this year.”
BOEM established North Carolina’s WEAs as part of then-President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan.
In addition to the Wilmington areas, known as the Wilmington West WEA (51,595 acres) and the Wilmington East WEA (133,590 acres), BOEM also established the 122,405-acre Kitty Hawk WEA. Oregon-based Avangrid Renewables, LLC, a subsidiary of Spain’s Iberdrola utility group, won the lease for the Kitty Hawk site in 2017 for $9,066,650.
According to Avangrid, construction on the project will not start until 2024.
Back when BOEM was actively exploring wind leases in the Wilmington area, the proposal was unpopular with many in Brunswick County.
Groups such as the Old Baldy Foundation, the group dedicated to preserving the lighthouse on Bald Head Island, and Bald Head Island’s village council passed resolutions in 2015 asking BOEM to ensure any turbines would not be visible from shore. Among the comments submitted to BOEM was also a formal resolution from the town of Sunset Beach opposing any wind leases within 24 nautical miles of North Carolina’s shores.
According to BOEM’s webpage for South Carolina, which includes the Wilmington wind areas, no steps have been taken since the public comment period closed Jan. 25, 2016.
Kollins said much of the northeast’s appeal for wind energy companies comes down to policy.
“In the northeast, you’ve seen state policies from New Hampshire down to Virginia that allow or require the state to procure, develop and purchase offshore wind,” she said.
Those policies can include state renewable portfolios -- requiring that a certain percentage of energy come from renewables -- or mandates from the governor. She pointed to New York’s Democrat Gov. Andrew Cuomo setting a goal to raise the state’s offshore wind production to 9,000 MW by 2035.
In 2017, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper also signed an executive order meant to encourage wind energy development in the state, including via a feasibility study for renewable energy on state-owned lands -- not specifically offshore areas.
“I think the Southeast is more shy in general with regard to mandates of any sort,” Kollins said. “Those aren’t usually popular.”
One factor that Kollins said will transform the East Coast wind industry in coming years is manufacturing.
Today, the supply chain comes entirely from Europe, she said, with the immensely heavy turbines constructed there and shipped to the U.S. As more wind farms open in the northeast, those European manufacturers have an incentive to cut costs by opening U.S. operations, particularly at state ports.
In April, state Rep. Holly Grange, R-New Hanover, filed a bill to create a $300,000 study into North Carolina’s ports and how to facilitate an offshore wind energy supply chain. Rep. Deb Butler, D-New Hanvoer, was a co-sponsor.
The bill’s language did not make into the state budget.
“You really could see a lot of the manufacturing supply chain in North Carolina if we play our cards right,” Kollins said.
OIL AND GAS
Also on the table is oil and gas drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf.
In January 2017, the U.S. Department of the Interior approved on offshore oil and gas leasing program that prohibited drilling in the Atlantic. But three months later, President Donald Trump issued Executive Order 13795, “Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy.” The order put the Atlantic back into the planning process for the 2019-24 leasing program.
BOEM is preparing an environmental analysis of the leasing program’s possible impacts. The Outer Continental Shelf is defined as seabed starting 3 nautical miles from shore, running to between 200 and 350 nautical miles offshore.
Sections of the mid-Atlantic region, which includes the entire North Carolina coast, are scheduled to go to bid in 2020, then again in 2022 and 2024.
Numerous local governments passed resolutions opposed to offshore drilling in recent years, including Wilmington and New Hanover County. The Bald Head Association, which represents Bald Head Island’s 2,000 property owners, has encouraged members to comment on the proposal.