Recognizing North Carolina’s wind-energy potential
Earlier this summer, the online retailer Amazon announced its plans for a large-scale wind energy facility in northeastern North Carolina. The $400 million project will include 104 wind turbines and generate the equivalent of electricity needed to power 61,000 homes annually. The project expects to be operational in late 2016 and represents the first of its kind in the state and the South.
For land-based wind projects, the future is clearly now. The project also illustrates the significant wind resources available in North Carolina – both on land and offshore. While an offshore wind farm may not be in the state’s immediate future, recent policy developments and ongoing research confirming the significant potential of offshore wind resources continue the momentum for offshore sites down the road.
Within the last year, the U.S. Department of Interior asked for the public to comment on the environmental effects of its plan to open up more than 300,000 acres off the North Carolina coast to wind energy development. The request for comments followed action by the agency in 2014 to designate three specific areas off of North Carolina for potential wind energy development – one area off the state’s northeastern coast and two near Wilmington.
The federal government’s designation increases the likelihood of wind energy projects off the N.C. coast. The designations also confirm what offshore wind energy experts have known for years: North Carolina has some of the best wind resources in all of the East Coast.
In 2009, at the request of state officials, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers evaluated the state’s offshore wind resources. Researchers spent nine months looking at wind resources, ecological risks and use conflicts, and existing transmission infrastructure. The study concluded that “because of a promising wind resource, large areas off the coast of North Carolina are well-suited for wind energy development and worthy of further investigation.”
Scientists have continued to refine the research to build on the findings of the 2009 report. Re-examination suggests that over the continental shelf, especially north of Cape Hatteras, wind resources are richer than previously thought. The explanation is a bit non-intuitive: Cool ocean waters in these areas lead to weakened winds right above the surface of the ocean where wind measurements are typically made, but they can produce significantly stronger winds at the height of wind turbines.