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What's Next For Offshore Wind In North Carolina?

wind turbines
Board of Ocean Energy Management

On Monday, the Obama administration announced about 300,000 acres of land of the North Carolina coast that will be explored for possible offshore wind development. The announcement includes three locations for potential development - two near Wilmington and one about 30 nautical miles off the coast of Kill Devil Hills.

The U.S Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has spent the last year and a half researching and taking comments on the proposed sites, and spent a long time before that in discussion with other stake holders. Moving forward, there are many things that need to happen before wind energy becomes a reality for the Carolina coast.

A Four-Step Process

Step 1: An environmental analysis - To determine if it's even safe to build in the marked zones, off the coasts of Wilmington and Kill Devil Hills. This process will likely last into next year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Step 2: Take the assessment back to a committee for discussion. (There are a lot of committees and discussions here) They'll decide how much, if any, of these 300-thousand acres should be proposed for sale. Concerns about the impact on wildlife and shipping routes could limit the area where wind farms could pop up.

Step 3: Let the public comment on the terms of a potential sale.

Step 4: Actually offer the land up for auction. Buyers would need to do their own environmental assessment. And then, maybe, they'd be accepted for development. It's not clear how long this whole process will take. With possible legal challenges, it seems safe to say it may be years before the first turbine rises off the Outer Banks.

A map of The proposed areas for possible wind energy development.
Credit U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
The proposed areas for possible wind energy development.

North Carolina's Prospects

A 2010 report from the University of North Carolina suggested the state had the highest potential of any state on the east coast for offshore wind development. The report estimates a robust wind economy could result in 10,ooo or more jobs in the state.

But wind energy presents an interesting give and take for both the business and environmental community.

For nature advocates, renewable energy is a positive step forward, but it comes with costs.

"Where is that balance between promoting green energy and preserving green areas?" said National Park Service deputy regional director for the Southeast, Barclay Trimble. (Trimble is the former superintendent of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore) "There's a lot to be determined, but this is a positive first step."

Business advocates had hoped the area available for development would be larger. Wind energy is among the most expensive form of electricity to produce, and the North Carolina coast is simultaneously being explored for potential oil drilling.

Five companies have expressed interest in developing wind in the proposed areas. That number may change in the coming months as the area's boundaries either hold or shift from the results of the environmental study.

Eric Mennel prepares the afternoon/evening "drive time" newscast on WUNC. Previously, he was a producer for The Story with Dick Gordon. Eric has reported for All Things Considered, This American Life, 99% Invisible and other radio programs. He covered protests and security measures at the 2012 Republican National Convention for WUSF Tampa and NPR News. One day, he hopes to own a home with a wrap-around porch.
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