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Coastal residents raise concerns about North Carolina offshore wind farms

A support vessel is seen next to a massive wind turbine at the Walney Extension offshore wind farm operated by the Orsted energy company off Britain's west coast on Sept. 5.
Phil Noble/Reuters
via NPR
A support vessel is seen next to a massive wind turbine at the Walney Extension offshore wind farm operated by the Orsted energy company off Britain's west coast on Sept. 5.

Thomas Myers lives in a three story home in Holden Beach that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean.

Myers and his wife bought the house in 1998 and moved to Holden Beach in Brunswick County permanently in 2013. Myers said he and his wife planned their entire lives around retiring in an oceanside home.

"When you go to the shore, stand on the beach and you look out, it’s like you’re looking into infinity," Myers said. "You can’t see the other side. You’re just looking out, and that’s special."

The couple remodeled their home in 2017, and it's now complete with an elevator and private access to the shore. Family photos are proudly adorned in their picturesque living room.

As a retired consultant to the energy industry and the current president of the Holden Beach Property Owners Association, Myers explained that he’s all for renewable energy.

He just doesn’t want it to cut off his view.

"I don’t want to see wind turbines flashing. They'll have lights on them... and [they'll] flash at night," Myers said. "You [would] lose that feeling. It’s like you would be standing on the beach looking out at a wind farm. You [wouldn't be] standing on the beach looking out to sea."

Myers isn’t alone. Last year, Brunswick County and several of its towns, including Sunset Beach and Bald Head Island, passed resolutions asking for wind developments to be at least 24 nautical miles offshore.

At the same time, Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order last June that establishes offshore wind development goals of 2.8 gigawatts off the North Carolina coast by 2030 and 8.0 gigawatts by 2040. Cooper wants wind energy to help the state achieve its other goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 70% by 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

Then, also at the same time, coastal officials worry that seeing wind turbines from shore will negatively impact tourism. A surveyfrom North Carolina State University in 2016 found most respondents did not want to see turbines from their beach rental properties.

"We’re a resort community. It’s a visual concern that [we'll] have these elements being built right off of our coast which is our biggest asset [and] biggest resource," said Peter Quinn, the mayor of Bald Head Island. "If you’re building something that’s in view, it’s going to affect our economy over on the island, and it’s going to affect our lifestyle."

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is in the process of leasing out an area called Wilmington East about 15 nautical miles from Bald Head Island. A wind farm area off Kitty Hawk was eventually pushed back to approximately 23.75 nautical miles after local governments along the Outer Banks raised these same visual concerns.

The Wilmington East lease has to be awarded to a company by July 1; that's when a 10-year federal moratorium on issuing out new leases for wind farms goes into effect.

BOEM spokesperson John Filostrat said in an emailed statement that his agency expects to post the final sale notice for the lease "as soon as next month."

To help ease visual concerns, the Southeastern Wind Coalition, a consortium of dozens of organizations advocating for wind energy, recently released pictures showing what the wind farms might look like from shore.

According to the coalition, the photos are based on public data about the Wilmington East project published by BOEM. The visualizations were produced by UNASYS, a UK-based company that specializes in rendering these types of images.

When Myers looked at the images, he admitted it was hard to make out the turbines, but still expressed some worries.

"I’m concerned that right at sunrise — which is gorgeous — if [the sun] is hitting those blades and they’re flickering, that distracts from sunrise over the ocean," Myers explained. "And maybe the same thing [will happen] at sunset."

Even if the wind farm isn’t visible from shore, there’s plenty of other questions. Groups representing commercial and recreational fishermen want to know if wind farms will impact fish behavior and migration. Quinn said he’s also thinking about sound pollution and sea traffic.

"You’re going to be delivering objects out there and we depend on the waterway for getting passengers back and forth," Quinn said. "How that will affect our ferry service and our barge service? We don’t know."

While the lease may be awarded this year, whatever company gets it will still have to go through years of planning and impact studies. The lease to the offshore wind farm near Kitty Hawk was awarded in 2017 to Avangrid Renewables, but construction isn’t scheduled to start until 2026.

For now, Erin Carey, the director of coastal programs at the North Carolina Sierra Club, welcomes people raising their concerns.

"These are absolutely questions that people should be asking, and [questions] that research and certainly the federal government can help answer," Carey said.

Despite all the anxieties, wind farms could play a big role in providing clean, renewable energy. But there are a lot of questions that will need to be answered if North Carolina is to reach its goal of carbon neutrality in time.

Celeste Gracia covers the environment for WUNC. She has been at the station since September 2019 and started off as morning producer.
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