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Trump's offshore oil ban in SC also covers wind farms, feds say

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Wind turbines are silhouetted by the setting sun as they produce electricity near Beaumont, Kan. About 6 percent of South Carolina's energy is produced by renewable sources. None of it is wind. File/AP

Oil and gas drilling wasn't the only thing halted by President Donald Trump's recent order covering offshore South Carolina.

It also blocked the expansion of wind farm technology, which came as a surprise to state and coastal leaders.

"I think almost no one was expecting that it would affect offshore wind," said Chris Carnevale of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. 

It's a blow to a nascent industry in South Carolina, where some areas offshore of the northern half of the state have been flagged for future wind farms, though the government hasn't started leasing waters yet.

"Oh, well that's disappointing," North Myrtle Beach Mayor Marilyn Hatley said upon hearing wind was included in the presidential order.

The beach town was opposed to fossil fuel extraction but passed a resolution years ago supporting wind technology and has two experimental turbines on land that power electric car charging stations. 

"We thought it's good, clean energy and that we should all be looking for alternative ways to supply energy to our communities," Hatley said. 

Coastal communities in the state and eventually Gov. Henry McMaster fought hard to exclude the waters off the Palmetto State from drilling, worried about the risks of a spill to tourism and the environment. But the news that wind development was also barred was a surprise to many. A spokesman for McMaster said wind energy was never discussed with the president.

Trump, however, has a history of hostility towards wind power, most famously when he said at an April 2019 fundraising dinner that the turbines decrease the value of properties nearby and that "the noise causes cancer." His company also waged a multi-year legal fight against a wind farm being installed in view of a Scottish golf course he owns, a battle Trump eventually lost later in 2019, according to the Washington Post

Industry growth

In announcing a moratorium off the coasts of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and later North Carolina, the president did not specifically mention wind energy. His presidential memo simply references "exploration, development or production" of energy, but not what types. It begins in 2022 and runs for 10 years.

The agency tasked with handing out offshore leases, the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management, said the moratorium also applies to wind turbines. 

"The withdrawal includes all energy leasing, including conventional and renewable energy," a BOEM spokesman said.

Offshore wind has been slow to arrive in the Southeast, though two major projects in the region are in the pipeline: a 2,600 megawatt Dominion Energy farm off the coast of Virginia that will start construction in 2024, and a still-conceptual 2,500 megawatt farm off North Carolina's Outer Banks.

The developer of the North Carolina project, Avangrid Renewables, doesn't have a buyer for the electricity yet so it hasn't started building. 

Another problem is the atmosphere. The further south on the Atlantic coast, the weaker the wind resource is — that is, the currents available to push the turbines are less reliable. But experts say taller and increasingly more efficient turbines can capture the energy near the Palmetto State, too.

"The potential is enormous," said Paul Gayes, a professor of marine science at Coastal Carolina University. 

The first steps for wind turbines to start spinning here began under then-Gov. Nikki Haley, who convened the task force needed to locate which areas of the outer continental shelf could be leased. Four areas were identified where the propeller towers would be out of the way of shipping channels and other conflicts. Those sites sit off the coast of Charleston and run north, with most of the area off Long Bay, which includes Myrtle Beach. 

In 2015, BOEM requested information on which companies might like to install wind farms in those four areas; two expressed interest. But it eventually grouped the zones with some in southern North Carolina, which will be handled together as the process moves forward. 

"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," according to a message from the agency's acting director in 2019.

But no meetings between the states have been scheduled, and BOEM also said it had no plan to issue more leases before the moratorium starts in 2022.

Uncertain horizon

Wind is one of a few resources that doesn't emit planet-warming carbon emissions as it generates electricity, making it one avenue to lessen the future effects of climate change.

"We’ve been working on this for 15 years and have a pretty firm belief that it is important for our state, as a state where we’re at such risk from the changes we’re seeing in our environment," Gayes said. 

Offshore wind, however, is still relatively new in the United States and not without concerns — the military, for example, is worried about farms impacting waters where it conducts training

It's also not nearly as cheap as solar power. Policy decisions, like a state mandate to reduce carbon emissions, could help it along, but South Carolina has no plan to pivot to cleaner energy.  

Still, the state has a few footholds in the wind industry. A General Electric facility in Greenville engineers turbines for onshore farms, and the Clemson University center in North Charleston tests prototypes for wear and tear. That center has two rigs where a group of 25 researchers can run parts of the turbines though mechanical engines to simulate 25 years of use.

The work at the Clemson lab is progressing as usual, Interim Executive Director Randy Collins said. 

"I don't anticipate there being any effect here," Collins said of the order.

Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

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