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Hurricanes, fish, and military activity: Answering questions about offshore wind energy

Windfarmvisual
Southeastern Wind Coalition
/
WHQR
This visualization shows what the view of the wind turbines from Bald Head Island could be on a sunny, clear day.

WHQR’s recent reporting on offshore wind garnered a lot of feedback — with over a thousand comments on social media. So WHQR’s Grace Vitaglione set up a panel of five experts to dig into some of the top concerns. 

Let’s start with timeline and scale: the Wilmington East Wind Energy Area project just leased earlier this year, so the earliest turbines could be in the water would be between 2028 and 2030. As for size, it’ll probably be around 60 to 80 turbines.

That’s according to Karly Lohan of Southeastern Wind Coalition and Roger Shew, a geology professor at University of North Carolina Wilmington and a content expert on North Carolina energy.

One major worry we saw in the comments was hurricanes. Joni Osku Backstrom, an environmental sciences assistant professor at UNCW, referenced his experience working with European offshore wind turbines in storms.

“We have over 5,000 turbines that are working in very treacherous conditions like the North Sea,” he said. “Very similar to the kinds of environments we'd have here: gale force winds, 100 to 120 mile per hour winds, and they are built to withstand those kinds of conditions.”

Katharine Kollins, president of the Southeastern Wind Coalition, added that turbines can be insured.

But what happens if a turbine is damaged or destroyed?

“The decommissioning of offshore wind turbines is part of the construction and operation plan that developers submit to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management,” said Lohan. “So it's part of the process that is submitted before construction even happens.”

Lohan said once a turbine’s lifespan ends — usually about 25 to 30 years - many parts of the turbine can be recycled. And if they’re damaged along the way, there are technicians who monitor the turbines and conduct repairs, according to Joni Backstrom.

Part of the concern with damage is because of the oil tanks that are housed within these machines. While oil could leak, Roger Shew said the tanks only hold around 60 gallons.

“Sixty gallons is not insignificant to be leaking, but at the same time, it's a tad less than an offshore oil rig,” Shew said.

A big selling point for the offshore wind industry has been the hope of it bringing tens of thousands of temporary construction jobs to North Carolina, lasting a few years. But some were skeptical: will there be longer-term jobs, and will they be for North Carolinians?

Kollins said there will be around 900 permanent jobs, based on Governor Roy Cooper’s wind energy goals.

“So those are not jobs where people are going to come in for a couple of weeks and leave,” said Kollins. “If they're not currently North Carolina residents, they will be.”

Matt Abele of the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association added the Cooper administration has focused on workforce development for clean energy, which could mean things like training programs.

Another big worry is the environmental impacts on fish and the fishing industry, as well as birds. Joni Backstrom said this is all considered in the planning process - the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management conducts preliminary surveys to figure out where the leasing area can be to avoid sensitive areas like animal habitats. Then on top of that, the developers themselves do a detailed survey of that specific location.

Karly Lohan added that the commercial fishing industry in North Carolina is mostly closer to shore than where the wind farm would be.

The same goes for birds — Roger Shew said most migratory birds don’t fly that far out. And the ones that do can be monitored; if they fly too close to the turbines, operators can slow or pause the blades if needed.

Plus, Lohan said, the biggest risk to migratory species is climate change – and added: “Your average house cat is a much larger threat to birds than an offshore wind turbine.”

Another question: how affordable and reliable is it? Katharine Kollins said offshore wind is extremely predictable, making it a great ingredient to add to a mix of energy sources. As for the cost, it may be more expensive than other renewables right now.

“But what you need to understand is one that the costs are coming down significantly over the next few years and two the economic development benefits from offshore wind are unparalleled,” Kollins said.

There’s one last issue we wanted to cover: what about the military?

Karly Lohan said the Department of Defense vets these offshore wind projects, and if there’s a conflict with military activity, the military gets priority. But so far, there haven’t been any. And she said offshore wind can provide a measure of energy independence that benefits national security.

The bottom line here is that while offshore wind comes with concerns, experts believe there’s a lot of potential opportunity as the industry grows. A Trump-era moratorium that halted offshore wind development was lifted last week, opening up the possibility for new projects in North Carolina.

Grace Vitaglione is a multimedia journalist, recently graduated from American University. I’m attracted to issues of inequity and my reporting has spanned racial disparities in healthcare, immigration detention and college culture. In the past, I’ve investigated ICE detainee deaths at the Investigative Reporting Workshop, worked on an award-winning investigative podcast and produced student-led video stories.