Imagine a future with windmills off the SC coast

Greenville NewsJuly 16, 2014 

Wind turbines in The Netherlands

ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

In a matter of years, wind mills may rise out of the ocean in the horizon along South Carolina’s Grand Strand, while the wind’s power may generate a new industry hundreds of miles from the coastal winds.

Experts have identified the best locations for offshore wind power, and maps show the wind is the strongest off the coast of Myrtle Beach. The likeliest place to locate wind mills may lie in the distant sightlines miles off the popular beach.

While the wind mills may not interfere with beach-goers’ ocean views, the structures may be visible in the horizon as they rise from the ocean floor about 10 miles off the coast, said Marc Johnson, president and CEO of the North Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce.

“You might be able to figure out on a clear day that it’s out there,” Johnson said, “but it’s not the kind of thing that you’re going to open your window up and say ‘Gosh, it’s right there.’”

Johnson said the reaction to the idea of offshore wind mills along the coast has been positive. Many people like the idea as long as they don’t have to look at it, he said.

If South Carolina chooses to pursue wind power — a move being studied now — the coastal waters would likely be the best resource, experts say.

The state’s wind speed onshore is tepid at times and unreliable at best.

South Carolina just doesn’t have a lot of consistent wind velocity on land low to the ground where it can be captured by the spinning three-pronged giant windmills that have popped up across the nation’s Midwest and Plains states, experts say.

So the state’s best wind potential lies just offshore, along the Grand Strand. Much of South Carolina’s research and development muscle is focused on making renewable wind energy a reality in the horizon off Myrtle Beach and elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast.

South Carolina has established a task force to study offshore wind energy, and the Legislature passed a resolution recently to recognize the state’s offshore wind resource.

South Carolina is positioned to benefit from offshore wind power that environmental groups have lauded as an immense clean energy resource in the nation’s efforts to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources, according to a new report from the National Wildlife Federation.

The report calls the wind potential a “golden” opportunity that’s now within reach as technology and costs have come in line with the costs to construct and operate fossil fuel plants, said Catherine Bowes, senior manager for climate and energy at the National Wildlife Federation.

Wind off the Atlantic Coast could power up to 5million homes, and the United States has designated 1.5million acres of ocean as wind areas.

No offshore wind farms exist now in the U.S., but the Cape Wind project may soon be built off the Cape Cod coast in Massachusetts with 130 turbines with the capacity to produce 468 megawatts of power.

States up and down the East Coast have reached varying levels in developing their own offshore wind projects. Rhode Island has leased its offshore wind energy area. Maryland is preparing to auction its offshore wind energy area through the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

North Carolina has identified its offshore energy areas, which borders on South Carolina’s potential offshore area.

Once the first offshore wind projects begin to build, the costs is expected to come down considerably,

Much of the muscle to power the offshore wind farms of the future is being built in the Upstate, with G.E. in Greenville making wind turbines and Clemson University’s College of Engineering and Science providing the engineering workforce to solve the countless problems involved with placing structures in the ocean’s saltwater miles from land in an area ripe for hurricanes.

The industry is rapidly evolving and needs engineers who are able to build and deploy advanced wind turbines that can withstand the ocean environment and provide reliable energy to the grid, said Randy Collins, executive director of academic initiatives at Clemson’s College of Engineering and Science.

Much of the advanced testing for offshore wind projects is taking place at the advanced wind turbine drive train test facility at Clemson University’s Restoration Institute in North Charleston, Collins said.

That facility will accelerate the time to market advanced technology and will work with utilities and industry to test new designs to ensure reliability, he said.

“Students and faculty members are going to be heavily engaged in this,” Collins said. “They’ll be able to be exposed to and learn from these real world devices that are being developed. It’s kind of a symbiotic relationship.”

The spillover effect to build a jobs cluster based on offshore wind power could be significant for South Carolina, he said.

Whether South Carolina pursues wind power is still being considered, but the state’s outer continental shelf appears well-structured to allow wind farm construction because of its low depth and gentle slope, said Paul Gayes, the director of the Center for Marine and Wetlands Studies at Coastal Carolina University who has been involved with the state offshore energy task force.

Offshore wind power has been studied and mapped for a decade, and though it has generally lower wind speeds than northeastern coasts, those states have much narrower space before the outer continental shelf drops off, making the water too deep to install structures to harness the wind, Gayes said.

“There is a wind potential off of the coast, and it gets greater as you move north from Hilton Head to the Grand Strand and it gets greater as you move from the coast to offshore,” Gayes said.

The latest study is looking at how hardy companies will need to build wind turbines to withstand hurricane-strength winds offshore, he said.

It’s all a matter of getting construction costs in line with actual needs so they don’t overbuild or underbuild the windmills, he said.

Once the first project is built, Gayes expects costs to drop and more Atlantic states to jump onboard to build offshore wind projects.

“There’s a lot of uncertainties, so that drives the costs up,” Gayes said.

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