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The onshore aspect of offshore wind: Here's what to expect

An offshore wind turbine manufacturing facility in Haverton Hill, Billingham, England.
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An offshore wind turbine manufacturing facility in Haverton Hill, Billingham, England.

Offshore wind in the Wilmington area is still in its beginning stages, but looking at projects a little further North may give us an idea of what to expect – particularly here on land. WHQR’s Grace Vitaglione has more.

While offshore wind is just that - off the shore — the industry requires facilities on shore for support, like manufacturing, operations, and maintenance. With the Wilmington East Wind Energy area leased earlier this year, multiple stakeholders are discussing where facilities like that could go.

Steve Yost is president of North Carolina’s Southeast, an organization that markets the southeastern region to new economic opportunities. He says distance and accessibility are key criteria.

“[They’re] going to be carrying these 200, 300-foot wind towers…and they're gonna stay vertical on the special vessels,” he said. “And then they're gonna go out into the ocean to the wind farm area, so the shorter the distance to get there from the staging area, the better.”

But the development of these facilities could take a while, according to Yost.

“Most of the parts in the beginning, first phases will be made internationally and likely shipped to the locations on the East Coast. And then as development gets going over time, that can be more of a domestic supply chain network,” he said.

It’s too early in the process to say where in the Cape Fear region the onshore elements will go. But a wind farm project in Kitty Hawk — a couple hundred miles north of Wilmington, in the Outer Banks — could be a potential sign of what will happen here.

Kitty Hawk’s offshore wind project was leased to Avangrid Renewables in 2017. Up there, Radio Island and the Port of Morehead City are looking like favorable spots for manufacturing and support facilities.

Michele Queery, the Director of Carteret County Economic Development, said Radio Island is an optimal choice.

“The site, if you’re not familiar with it, is like four and a half miles to the open ocean, totally unobstructed,” she said. “There's no powerlines, no bridges, and it's already dredged to 43 to 45 feet.”

The area is around 150 acres of undeveloped land owned by the North Carolina State Port Authority. According to Queery, the Port Authority has begun exploring potential environmental impacts of placing a manufacturing facility there.

“The thing that is so appealing about Radio Island, and how it can engage in the offshore wind space, is just that it's a large tract of land on deep water that's close proximity to ocean, undeveloped,” Queery said.

Differentiating facility types

An important distinction to make here is that there are different kinds of support sites that wind farms need. First, there are the larger sort of manufacturing sites that need to be close to shore for easy access to the wind farm, which will likely need a nearby construction base. But there are also operations and maintenance facilities, which are smaller, and the site where cables from the wind farm come ashore.

Avangrid Renewables is the company leasing Kitty Hawk, and Ashley McLeod is their spokesperson. She talked about where some of those smaller facilities might go.

“They have to land and bring the power somewhere,” McLeod said. “And so those we usually look for a parking lot, basically kind of an area somewhere that's already disturbed and is already developed that way.”

She said the cables are buried under the sand with horizontal drilling to prevent disturbing the beach. And after they’re brought ashore, the long-term impact is minimal.

“In the parking lot, when it's all done, there's nothing there,” McLeod said. “When it's all said and done, there are manhole covers in the parking lot that weren't there before. Otherwise, it's still a parking lot.”

As for the manufacturing facilities, those will most likely be in an industrial area, she said, because of zoning ordinances.

Looking to Virginia

Another area Wilmington can look to is the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project in the Hampton Roads region, where Dominion Energy began leasing an offshore wind area in 2021.

Matt Smith of the Hampton Roads Alliance said that project will reuse the Virginia state-owned Portsmouth Marine terminal. There’s less environmental impact that way, and it’s easier and less costly to redesign the current facility instead of building a new one.

But he said that doesn’t mean it’ll be cheap.

“Just to get it ready for offshore wind is going to take about an investment of $220 million to upgrade it to support offshore wind uses,” Smith said.

These are big undertakings, and finding a suitable spot is difficult. Smith said it’s been especially hard for projects up in New England.

“It's been a difficulty for the industry to find adequate terminal facilities that can support the development of these projects,” he said. “So it's…potentially a bottleneck that can hamper the development of the industry.”

According to McLeod of Avangrid, it’s part of the responsibility of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to evaluate these sites for developers to use - and every project is a little different.

Right now, developers and other stakeholders are discussing every little detail, and focusing on community engagement.

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.