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!
[i] “North Carolina.” States at Risk. Accessed April 12, 2019. http://statesatrisk.org/north-carolina/all.
[ii] “Renewable Energy Investment United States 2017 | Statistic.” Statista. Accessed April 12, 2019. https://www.statista.com/statistics/186818/north-american-investment-in-sustainable-energy-since-2004/.
[iii] “U.S. Energy Facts.” U.S. Energy Information Administration. May 16, 2018. Accessed April 12, 2019. https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/?page=us_energy_home.
[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. https://windexchange.energy.gov/states/nc.
[vii] “Offshore Wind for N.C.” Environment North Carolina. Accessed April 12, 2019. https://environmentnorthcarolina.org/programs/nce/offshore-wind-nc.
[viii] “100% North Carolina.” The Solutions Project. 2015. Accessed April 12, 2019. https://thesolutionsproject.org/why-clean-energy/#/map/states/location/NC.
[x] Colburn, J., Cole, L., Gray, J., Gruetter, E., Marriott, S., Murphy, M., . . . Stearns, B. (n.d.).
OFFSHORE WIND ENERGY DEVELOPMENT IN NORTH CAROLINA: IS IT
WORTH IT? (PDF document). Accessed April 12, 2019.
[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. https://energync.org/hb589/.
[xiii] Associated Press. “North Carolina Lawmakers considering Banning Offshore Wind Projects.” Power Engineering, March 28, 2019. https://www.power-eng.com/articles/2019/03/north-carolina-lawmakers-considering-banning-offshore-wind-projects.html.
[xiv] “North Carolina – State Profile and Energy Estimates.” U.S. Energy Information Administration. September 20, 2018. Accessed April 12, 2019. https://www.eia.gov/state/?sid=NC#tabs-4.
[xv] “Wind Energy Technologies Office Projects Map.” Energy.gov. Accessed April 12, 2019. https://www.energy.gov/eere/wind/wind-energy-technologies-office-projects-map.
[xvi] “After Moratorium, North Carolina Looks Offshore for Wind Energy Potential.” Energy News Network, February `18, 2019. Accessed April 12, 2019. https://energynews.us/2019/02/18/southeast/after-moratorium-north-carolina-looks-offshore-for-wind-energy-potential/.