North Charleston mayor joins wildlife, environmental groups in supporting offshore wind power

A boat passes by a wind farm in the North Sea offshore from the village of Blavandshuk near Esbjerg, Denmark, in this 2002 photo. There are no offshore wind farms in the U.S., but plans are moving ahead in several states, and the potential is being studied in others including South Carolina.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey joined the National Wildlife Federation and environmental groups Thursday in calling for the government to take a leadership role in promoting offshore wind power.

"If government leads the way (people) will follow," Summey said. "I'm very excited about the potential of doing this."

One of the world's largest facilities for testing wind turbine drivetrains is located in North Charleston at Clemson University's SCE&G Energy Innovation Center, on the former Navy base. There are, however, no specific plans for offshore wind power in South Carolina or neighboring coastal states.

The nation currently has no offshore wind power, but the U.S. Department of Energy has a goal of generating 20 percent of the nation's power from wind by 2030, up from less than 4 percent last year, and the size and scale of offshore wind power would be needed to reach that goal.

Offshore wind farms are more expensive to build than those on land, but offshore winds are significantly stronger and steadier than onshore winds, and offshore wind turbines are larger and exponentially more powerful, according to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Last year, the company Alstom installed a turbine in waters off Belgium with 241-foot-long blades, capable of generating enough power for 5,000 homes. Offshore wind has been part of the energy mix in Europe since 1991.

The first offshore wind farm in the U.S., the Cape Wind project near Nantucket Sound, is expected to start generating power in 2016. That project calls for 130 wind turbines across a 28-square-mile area, each 440 feet tall from the water surface to the highest blade tip, capable of collectively producing enough power to meet 75 percent of the electricity demand of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket.

"We here in New Bedford (Mass.) are prepared," New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said, while participating in the conference call with Summey. "At the end of the day, for us in New Bedford, it's all about creating jobs."

Mitchell said jobs would be created at New Bedford's port, to build and service the Cape Wind project.

In South Carolina, the potential to generate some of the state's electricity needs with massive offshore wind turbines has been the subject of several studies. The greatest offshore wind potential for South Carolina is in the area off Myrtle Beach.

The South Carolina Renewable Energy Task Force last met in May, and reviewed the progress of ongoing federal studies overseen by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Office of Renewable Energy Programs. Environmental studies of marine life and near-shore birds including the brown pelican and royal tern are planned in 2015 and 2016, task force members were told.

Wind farms pose an obvious risk to birds, but the National Wildlife Federation says offshore wind power can help address the greater threat to wildlife posed by climate change.

"America is closer than ever before to finally harvesting the immense energy resources right off our shores," said Catherine Bowes, senior manager for climate and energy at the National Wildlife Federation.

The federation and other supporters of wind power want to see more states require utilities to use renewable energy sources to generate a portion of the power they produce. They also want the federal government to renew tax incentives that support wind power projects.

"We believe (offshore wind power) does two things," said Summey. "It cleans our environment for animals and humans alike, but also cuts our dependence on foreign energy products."

In the near term the closest offshore wind power to South Carolina is expected to be a federally-funded demonstration project in the waters off Virginia Beach, where Dominion Virginia Power hopes to install and test two 6-megawatt turbines, which would be among the largest in use worldwide.

This week, Dominion was conducting test borings for the project, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.

Wind power also has opponents, however, ranging from business rivals in the fossil fuel industry to public policy groups opposed to clean-energy subsidies.

"Wind itself may be free but the price to harness it as a source of renewable energy isn't," said the Institute for Policy Innovation, a Texas think-tank founded in the 1980s by former U.S. Rep. Dick Armey in a statement Thursday.

"Congress is backing away from its longtime support for wind subsidies, and given the growing availability of inexpensive fossil fuels for energy generation, that's the right move," the organization states on its website.

For South Carolina, generation of utility-scale offshore wind power is at a minimum several years away, but that doesn't mean the turbine testing facility in North Charleston will sit idle. The facility is designed to test the huge, next-generation offshore wind turbines that produce up to 15 megawatts and are expected to supply growing European demand for offshore power.

"I think what we need to be doing at the state level is looking at the types of policy changes that would make it possible for our investor-owned utilities to do more research and development of offshore wind," said Hamilton Davis, energy director for the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League.

There's currently no regulatory mechanism in South Carolina that allows a utility to factor the costs for building an offshore wind farm into its electric rates, as utilities do when they build nuclear power plants.

"South Carolina is well positioned to be a leader in the offshore wind sector, but we must make smart policy decisions today if we are to achieve our potential," Davis said.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552