North Carolina’s energy future: offshore wind

The climate crisis is upon us. We are witnessing the impacts across North Carolina including increases in flooding, extreme heat, wildfire risk, and hurricane severity[i]. Not only do these changes cause public health and environmental concerns, but they threaten the agricultural economy, coastal communities, and military infrastructure.


In order to mitigate the effects of climate change, we must make changes to our electricity grid which currently relies on burning fossil fuels. Fortunately, total U.S. renewable energy investment value has been increasing, from $11.9 billion in 2005 to $46.7 billion only a decade later[ii]. As of 2017, renewable energy sources generated 11% of the energy consumed in the United States[iii]. Hydropower, wood, biofuels, and onshore wind comprise a majority of energy generation from the renewable sector, while solar energy is rapidly growing[iv].


However, one energy source with substantial capacity is constantly overlooked and undermined: offshore wind. Compared to wind turbines on land, offshore turbines experience more consistent and powerful wind flow, generating greater amounts of electricity per unit area[v]. Plus, installing turbines offshore avoids issues regarding land use and noise creation.


North Carolina specifically is well-suited for offshore wind energy development. According to a map created by the U.S. Department of Energy, the state’s coast has large areas with “good” and “excellent” offshore wind resource potential, with some areas even reaching the threshold for the “outstanding” classification[vi]. North Carolina was determined to have a higher capacity for offshore wind than any other state along the Atlantic Coast[vii].


In 2015, a study named “The Solutions Project” was conducted by Stanford University to research how every state in America could be powered by 100% clean energy by 2050[viii]. North Carolina’s potential energy composition included a variety of sources including 6% rooftop residential solar, 5% onshore wind, 2.7% hydroelectric. 50% was projected to come from offshore wind![ix]


Despite the enormous possibility this resource offers, the reality today is disheartening. There are only five operational offshore wind turbines in the entire United States, all of which are in one wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island. There are a variety of economic, environmental, technological, and political factors contributing to the lack of widespread implementation.


As much of offshore wind development has occurred in Europe, the United States currently lacks the capacity to manufacture and assemble turbines domestically, significantly raising transportation costs. Although clean energy resources generally create much fewer carbon emissions and less air pollution than fossil fuels, offshore wind turbines pose threats to the aquatic ecosystem they are installed in. During site assessment, construction, and operation, marine mammals will face “unavoidable” and sometimes “irreversible” impacts, while birds, bats, sea turtles, and fish will also be threatened[x].


However, these effects must be analyzed within the broader context of energy development, which includes offshore oil and gas drilling. Offshore drilling severely harms marine life through vessel collisions, exposure to hydrocarbons, and destruction of critical habitat[xi]. Additionally, oil and gas extraction exacerbate the devastating effects of climate change and increase the likelihood of an oil spill which may damage the ecosystem beyond repair.


In order to survive the volatility of the ocean climate, offshore turbines need to become more stable, as will the infrastructure to transport the electricity back onshore. Members of the North Carolina General Assembly have also sought to undermine the industry’s development, including an 18-month wind energy moratorium in a solar bill passed in 2017[xii] and a Republican legislator introducing a bill to prohibit wind turbines within 100 miles of the coast, arguing their operation will harm military base operations, despite the Pentagon having an office that works with energy companies to promote development while preventing risks to defense operations[xiii].


Despite these challenges, offshore wind offers a clean and abundant energy source for North Carolina. By installing wind turbines along the state’s coastline, North Carolina can reduce its carbon emissions, increase energy availability, and create new jobs by pioneering a new industry in the United States. The state generated 10,953,000 Megawatt-hours of electricity in 2018; only 5% of which was from non-hydroelectric renewables[xiv]. North Carolina is uniquely positioned to increase its share of renewable energy generation by leveraging offshore wind and pave the way to adoption along the entire Atlantic and Pacific coastlines.


There have been positive developments in pursuing offshore wind in North Carolina. The Department of Energy’s Wind Energy Technology Office has three studies underway in the state focused on offshore wind[xv]. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management leased an area off the Outer Banks for a wind farm of up to 2.5 gigawatts[xvi]. On the state level, Governor Cooper has signed executive orders pledging a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 and promoting wind energy.


Moving forward, government leaders, clean energy advocates, and the business community must work together to ensure offshore wind has the institutional support necessary to be implemented in the state and expand across the country. The winds of change are here and North Carolina needs to act!


Works Cited

[i] “North Carolina.” States at Risk. Accessed April 12, 2019.

[ii] “Renewable Energy Investment United States 2017 | Statistic.” Statista. Accessed April 12, 2019.

[iii] “U.S. Energy Facts.” U.S. Energy Information Administration. May 16, 2018. Accessed April 12, 2019.

[iv]  Ibid

[v] Keivanpour, Samira, Amar Ramudhin, and Daoud Ait Kadi. “The Sustainable Worldwide Offshore Wind Energy Potential: A Systematic Review.” Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy 9, no. 6 (2017): 065902. doi:10.1063/1.5009948.

[vi] “Wind Energy in North Carolina.” WINDExchange. Accessed April 12, 2019.

[vii] “Offshore Wind for N.C.” Environment North Carolina. Accessed April 12, 2019.

[viii] “100% North Carolina.” The Solutions Project. 2015. Accessed April 12, 2019.

[ix] Ibid

[x] Colburn, J., Cole, L., Gray, J., Gruetter, E., Marriott, S., Murphy, M., . . . Stearns, B. (n.d.).


WORTH IT? (PDF document). Accessed April 12, 2019.

Click to access MCOP2015FinalPresentation.pdf

[xi] Purohit, Sandra. Impacts of Offshore Oil and Gas Drilling on Marine Wildlife 1 / 2. Defenders of Wildlife Publication, Washington D.C.

[xii] “HB589.” NC Sustainable Energy Association. Accessed April 12, 2019.

[xiii] Associated Press. “North Carolina Lawmakers considering Banning Offshore Wind Projects.” Power Engineering, March 28, 2019.

[xiv] “North Carolina – State Profile and Energy Estimates.” U.S. Energy Information Administration. September 20, 2018. Accessed April 12, 2019.

[xv] “Wind Energy Technologies Office Projects Map.” Accessed April 12, 2019.

[xvi] “After Moratorium, North Carolina Looks Offshore for Wind Energy Potential.” Energy News Network, February `18, 2019. Accessed April 12, 2019.

9 thoughts on “North Carolina’s energy future: offshore wind

  1. Great article Elliot! One question I had reading this is why the United States lacks the capacity to build offshore wind projects? It seems to me that we should be economically and technologically developed enough to undertake off-shore wind projects independently, but would like to know what specifically is holding us back from doing this. I do share some of the concerns about the potential effects that off-shore wind can have on marine mammals, especially through noise pollution, but you make a great point in that we already harm marine mammal life through our off-shore oil production. Considering the potential of North Carolina’s coastline, it seems that the state could really become a trailblazer in developing off shore wind projects that other states could follow. Hopefully the development of new technology and policy can help North Carolina in developing significant renewable energy production through offshore wind in the near future.

  2. I loved your blog Elliot! I agree with Nicholas’ question – why is offshore wind so hard for the United States to implement? Some of the statistics in your blog noted that our government puts a great amount of monetary resources into fossil fuels. Perhaps an economic analysis of offshore wind benefits might incentivize Congress to support some offshore wind projects. I also have some questions for you about offshore wind in North Carolina, or across the country in general. The coasts of North America have been degrading very rapidly due to climate change, and I’m wondering if you see that impacting the feasibility of offshore wind farms in general. Could companies not want to build in places like the Outer Banks due to the destruction they face from climate change in general, then severe weather events on top of that?

  3. This was a really interesting and information article Elliott! Since you mentioned that a lot of offshore wind development has occurred in Europe, I’m interested in learning more about the policies that have led to that development and the effects of the turbines on ecosystems there. I think it is also interesting that a big theme you pose in the challenges to offshore wind development is this conflict between ecosystems vs. clean energy, since both of them do impact the environment around us. Like Nicholas said, it is a very good point that these effects have to be seen in the greater context of the existing current fossil fuel production. It will be interesting to follow the progress of the North Carolina energy sector and the future of wind energy to come! (Very nice pun in that last sentence, by the way)

  4. Elliott given that North Carolina does not have any oil, natural gas, or coal production, offshore wind makes perfect sense for the energy landscape, especially given the price, as offshore wind ranks consistently as one of the lowest levalized forms of energy per kWh. Not only would offshore wind create thousands of jobs to stimulate the economy, nearly every business and consumer would benefit with lower energy bills. Overall, you bring up good points about the potential environmental harm to marine life and biodiversity offshore wind could cause, however, under a cost-benefit analysis it will always be favorable to any carbon source of energy. Conducting environmental impact assessments and working with scientists to avoid migration paths will help mitigate this damage and put wind into a broader context. While it’s true that wind turbines can kill birds, cats and tall buildings are responsible for the vast majority of deaths. Those that criticize the wind industry likely have a vested interest to try and hold onto expensive and dirty forms of energy, such as coal, which cause exponentially more damage to the environment, however lack the direct causal relationship found with wind. Overall, North Carolina would be wise, as you advocate, to invest heavily in wind, as the high upfront costs will be paid back quickly with cheap, clean energy.

  5. Elliot, this was a very interesting article! You highlighted well the capacity and potential for wind power generation off the coast of North Carolina. I completely agree that offshore wind generation is an important aspect of renewable energy infrastructure. However, as you and many of the commenters have mentioned, offshore wind is a complicated issue. While reading this article, I was wondering specifically about how offshore wind turbines may affect property values and the tourism industry. Is it possible that large wind farms viewable from coastal communities may financially hurt property and business owners in the area? Additionally, I found it really interesting to read about the North Carolina General Assembly and their efforts to work against offshore wind installments by claiming it harms military base operations.

  6. Offshore wind does seem like a good alternative to large land-based wind farms considering the higher wind speeds and consistency at sea that you mention. You touch only briefly on electricity storage and transportation costs, which I’m curious about – one of the reasons that Europe is so successful at implementing offshore wind is the large number of high-density urban centers that are on the coast. Since North Carolina’s major cities are all farther inland, some pretty serious infrastructure changes might need to be made should offshore wind become a significant source of electric energy. Transporting electricity is to some extent a solved problem – dams and nuclear power plants are rarely close to the users of the power they produce – but the new infrastructure would have high up-front costs that may dissuade energy producers and may require subsidizing to overcome. I definitely agree that North Carolina should investigate the benefits of offshore wind – I hope the state’s more recent wind initiatives make good progress!

  7. Great article Elliot! The order of the topics you addressed as well as separating your separate ideas into paragraphs made this post really interesting and easy to read. While reading the blog post, I was very surprised to see that the United States lacks the capacity to manufacture and assemble wind turbines domestically and that there are only five operational offshore wind turbines in the entire United States, all of which are in one wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island!

    This blog post also got me thinking about a possible cost-benefit analysis to analyze whether increasing offshore wind turbines in the United States is a good idea. Although wind turbines use a renewable, clean source of energy and can generate more energy than a typical wind turbine inland, offshore wind could be damaging our marine ecosystems. I think good site assessment is crucial to determine whether it is worth it to install offshore wind. If marine species will face irreversible impacts, the site may not be the correct one to install offshore wind turbines.

  8. Great article! The topic of one of my memos was the BOEM OCS Oil and Gas Leasing Program, so the information on offshore wind is very interesting. One thing I noticed from the BOEM website was there seems to be much more emphasis on offshore oil and gas than fossil fuels. However, the numbers show that offshore wind can be a vital part of renewable energy production. Two particular thoughts came to mind regarding the coast of NC. Firstly, because of severe weather events, has anyone expressed concern about developing these wind farms in a high risk area? Secondly, regarding fish, there have been some studies done that show structures such as oil rigs provide habitat for many fish species. From the diagrams showing how wind turbines would be anchored, it seems as though they would have a beneficial effect on local fish populations!

  9. Thanks for this post, Elliott! I learned a lot about the potential of offshore wind as a renewable source of energy. I agree that North Carolina seems have to the ideal geography for such a project — with so much coastline and a strong coastal economy. As I am no expert in the subject, I wonder what type of impact these offshore wind turbines have on the coastal communities they’re invading. Is there any impact on larger ocean patterns, and has there shown to be a negative effect on marine populations who live around the turbines in Rhode Island. I’m totally supportive of using the renewable source of energy that best suits a state’s geography, as long as there is minimal ecological damage as a result. I think that with a geography such as North Carolina’s, it is extremely difficult to determine one method that can provide enough renewable energy, with variation from mountainous regions, the flat piedmont and rolling hills of the coastal plain.

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