Officials in North Myrtle Beach want to cash in on ocean wind energy, and an opportunity to do so arose this month.
The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management opened two tracts along the Horry County coast for wind farm proposals as part of an area that includes additional tracts off the North Carolina coast.
Should those wind farms decide to bring their power ashore in North Myrtle Beach, the potential for job creation and diversification is huge not just along the north Strand, but throughout the region.
The BOEM has set Jan. 28 as a deadline for proposals to be mailed, the first step in a process that should lead to bidding for tracts where more than one proposal is submitted and eventually permitting the construction and operation of wind farms.
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A group centered in North Myrtle Beach has been researching land-based wind energy since 2009, an effort that has led to an idea of creating a locally-based offshore wind farm cooperative. The plan calls for selling stock in the effort, which would create an investor-owned wind energy cooperative much like those created to provide electricity to rural America in the early 20th century.
Should the plan not coalesce to get in on the first leases in the newly-opened tracts, there is an another way for North Myrtle Beach to benefit from offshore wind farms. The city has agreed to include two conduits in each of three planned ocean outfall pipelines as a path to get power generated by wind farms to customers on land.
“It’s a very common sense way to get the energy ashore without having to reinvent the wheel,” said Greg Duckworth, a North Myrtle Beach city councilman and a linchpin of the North Strand Coastal Wind Team.
The team was formed in 2008 and got a $173,000 state grant the next year to site two small wind generators along the North Myrtle Beach coastline. A third was financed by Santee Cooper, Duckworth said, and the team also has conducted tests atop the Avista Resort to study the potential for rooftop wind towers to produce at least part of the power the highrises need.
If the city is successful in attracting offshore wind farm owners to bring their power ashore through North Myrtle Beach’s conduits, it will generate income for the city both in charges to the wind farms to use the conduits and potentially from fees the city could charge to power companies for funneling the energy into their lines.
The upshot for city taxpayers could be a monthly rebate on power bills, Duckworth said.
The potential benefits for North Myrtle Beach and much of northeastern South Carolina are the jobs that will be created not only to construct and operate the wind farms but to build the components that make them run and to maintain everything in working order. Additional jobs could come from new manufacturing plants that are attracted to the area because of the availability of clean energy.
While North Myrtle Beach may be on the front of the wave to benefit from offshore wind power, it is not the only effort along the Grand Strand.
A consortium of business, universities and government worked for several years to put together a proposal to construct a 40 megawatt wind farm off the coast at Georgetown.
The effort, known as Palmetto Wind, includes Clemson University’s Restoration Institute, Coastal Carolina University, Santee Cooper and the S.C. Energy Office. It wrote a proposal for a federal grant program created to help finance the Georgetown wind farm.
But the application never got in the mail because just one of four power companies in N.C., S.C. and Georgia signed on as a partner, said Mollie Gore, spokeswoman for Santee Cooper, which had worked on the project for several years. She said letters seeking support from the other utilities were sent out in February and that the grant application deadline was in May.
Gore said other utilities are supportive of the wind power concept, and suggest their silence may have been due to the timetable that needed quick answers.
“Sometimes it comes down to finding the right project at the right time,” Gore said. “We’re going to continue to look for opportunities where this might make sense for our customers.”
While it may be possible to get a fairly good estimate of the cost of equipment to build an offshore wind platform, Gore said there are many uncertainties as well, such as the cost of or ability to get insurance as well as the cost for replacement and maintenance of equipment, particularly the sea floor foundations for the towers.
Hamilton Davis, energy and climate director for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said he’d like Gov. Nikki Haley’s office and the state Department of Commerce to be more engaged in the offshore wind power effort. He said the state is working with Georgia and the Savannah River National Laboratory on a project and organizations in Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia meet to share information. South Carolina, he said, is ideally situated to profit from offshore wind farms.
Already, Davis said the state has industries that build a significant part of the equipment necessary for wind farms, and other equipment could be shipped in through the ports in Charleston and Georgetown. In addition, Clemson has secured $95 million in federal and private funds to develop and test the next generation of wind power equipment components at a facility in Charleston.
“We’re ideally set up to become a player to develop this resource along the East Coast,” Davis said.
The waters off North Carolina and South Carolina are estimated to have 33 percent of the offshore wind power potential of the entire East Coast. The majority of that is off North Carolina, and the water that touches the Horry and Georgetown coastlines are the southernmost extent of offshore areas with good to excellent wind generation potential. But the possibility exists for enough wind power to be developed off the S.C. coast to equal all that is currently generated through nuclear, coal and natural gas-driven plants.
Already, Coastal Carolina University has been tapped to conduct studies of wave force pressures on ocean wind towers.
“We’ll probably put some buoys out next summer,” said Paul Gayes, director of CCU’s school of coastal and marine systems.
Gayes said areas off the northeast U.S. coast have been more aggressive than those in the Southeast to get into wind power. But the Southeast in general and the Grand Strand, in particular, has a huge advantage because this area’s power grid has unused capacity to transmit ocean wind-generated electricity whereas the grid in the Northeast is already operating at capacity.
He said companies that lay cable to transmit the power from the farms to shore have visited the area, and noted that generating, transmitting and using wind power has the potential to generate and benefit a broad range of businesses.
“These things are enormous,” he said.
Marc Jordan, president of the North Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce, said the organization has issued position papers supporting ocean wind power and is on record supporting a locally-created, shareholder-owned wind farm.
He said the city and chamber have conducted public forums and done surveys that show North Myrtle Beach residents and business owners are very supportive of ocean wind power. He doesn’t think wind power towers barely visible from the shore would generate major complaints, but added the chamber would support them even if they are clearly visible.
He said the chamber not only agrees with others in the way offshore wind farms could generate onshore business and job creation, but perhaps has looked at it with a finer magnifying glass than others. He said that recreational and commercial fishing interests would benefit because the underwater supports for the towers would become anchors for reef creation, which in turn would attract fish. Additionally, he said that there are opportunities for paid sightseeing trips to the wind farms.
“We’ve followed this on down to the point of diversifying our economy,” he said.
Development of wind farms likely along the S.C. coast is at least several years away. There is, after all, the application, permitting and construction phases that are still ahead.
But when it comes, North Myrtle Beach wants to be the place where, at a minimum, the farms plug into land-based power lines.
“This is an economic development platform,” Duckworth said of nearby ocean wind farms. “This is a way to diversify.”