NORTH CHARLESTON — The Southeast coast has potential for offshore wind energy but the industry faces challenges, including a regulatory environment that offers little incentive for developing such power, attendees at the Southeastern Coastal Wind Conference were told Wednesday.
Speakers also said there needs to be more research on offshore conditions to determine the best kind of turbines that will hold up to the winds and waves of tropical storms and hurricanes.
“Offshore wind in the Southeast is an enormous opportunity,” said Brian O’Hara, president of the Southeastern Coastal Wind Coalition which is sponsoring the day-and-a-half conference.
The coalition is a consortium of manufacturers, researchers and government agencies working to promote wind development from Virginia to Florida. The group says about 60 percent of the potential offshore wind resources that can be tapped on the East Coast are between Virginia and Georgia.
“I would say the Southeast got a little later start in looking at offshore compared to the rest of the East Coast, but it’s quickly catching up,” he said. “We have a different approach down here with a regulated utility market.”
Perrin Dargan of Charleston, an attorney who works for the international law firm of K&L Gates, said in a regulated market, utility companies control generation, distribution and the sale of power. In other states such as in the Northeast, third parties can finance and develop wind projects and sell the power to electric companies.
In South Carolina, lawmakers have allowed utility companies that are currently building nuclear plants to pass along plant construction costs to customers while they are being built. Such a rule for development of offshore wind power would spur the industry because of the upfront costs, he added.
Otherwise, he said, “utilities are not making a return on their money while in construction. That’s a real disincentive.”
Ralph Nichols, an engineer at the Savannah River National Laboratory near Aiken, said that more research is also needed on the impact storms might have on turbines off the coast.
North Carolina state Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Edenton, said he has been working to bring land wind turbines to his six-county district in the northeastern corner of the state. Those rural counties have unemployment rates of more than 10 percent and local governments are looking for the revenue that the investment in wind energy can bring.
“That you’re helping in the effort to buy one less gallon of gas or one less gallon of heating oil from the Middle East is a good argument,” he said.
New technology has made putting wind turbines on land in the Southeast more practical, O’Hara said.
“In the southeastern part of the country, wind speeds are lower than in places like the Midwest,” he said. “What has opened up the Southeast recently is advances in turbine technology, things like bigger blades, that have allowed for economical development of these lower-wind speed sites.”