South Carolina's nascent wind power industry will take a significant step forward in September when the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management meets with SC officials about the next steps for offshore wind.
North Myrtle Beach and the North Shore Wind Team have been working to position North Myrtle Beach as the logical place for transmission lines from the farms to move into the landbound power grid.
The city's power infrastructure already can handle the infusion of 300 megawatts of additional power and direct it to homes and businesses throughout the region. Further, the city will incorporate ducts in future ocean outfall pipes where the transmission lines can emerge from the sea.
North Myrtle Beach likely will be the closest land area between Georgetown and southeastern North Carolina with existing infrastructure for the transmission lines. The ocean offshore from the area has some of the most reliable winds on the East Coast.
Offshore areas in the Northeast have better winds, according to studies, but the ocean floor there drops off rapidly within five miles or so of shore, which already has led to landside battles from those who don't want wind towers to be a prominent part of their sea views.
The slope is much more gradual in waters off the Carolinas, meaning the towers can be positioned 10 or more miles from beaches. They may be visible from that distance on clear air days, but only as pinpoints on the distant horizon, said Monroe Baldwin, North Shore Wind Team chairman.
The BOEM meeting this fall comes on the heels of the adoption of a resolution by the S.C. Senate recognizing the value of wind-generated energy. Baldwin and others said that in itself was an important step toward the development of wind energy in state waters because it tells investors that the state is likely to craft laws and regulations sensitive to their needs.
The resolution recognizes wind power as part of a multi-source energy strategy and North Myrtle Beach as a Wind Empowered Economic Zone.
At the same time, though, the Senate would not vote to designate wind power an official part of the state's energy mix. But it did formally incorporate solar power into the mix, a move that could help break down resistance to the addition of wind power into the grid and establish a process that could be adapted to energy generated from offshore winds.
According to information from Massachusetts, where the East Coast's first offshore wind farm could be located, a single megawatt of offshore wind energy can power 400 homes, at least 100 more homes than can be powered by a megawatt from less-powerful land-based winds.
But that total drops to 200 homes in the Southeast because of higher electricity use in summer for air conditioning and in winter for heat, said Mollie Gore, spokeswoman for Santee Cooper. Most homes in the Northeast rely on fuel oil for heat and use air conditioning much more sparingly than homes in the Southeast.
Gore said Santee Cooper’s Winyah Generating Station in Georgetown generates 1,130 megawatts of electricity and powers 1,000 homes with each megawatt.
Santee Cooper wants to put a test wind turbine in the ocean off Georgetown, but Gore said that is now on hold as the company seeks partners to help finance the effort.
Power generated by offshore winds, which is becoming increasingly common in Europe, is an important part of the clean energy mix – solar power and biofuels are others – that will help to reduce the need for fossil fuels to generate electricity and in the long run help to combat global warming.
If North Myrtle Beach becomes an epicenter for bringing ocean wind-generated electricity ashore, it will stimulate jobs not only servicing the wind farms but also offering tours to the farms and fishing around them because of the marine life that will use tower bases as homes, officials say.
“Five or six years ago when we talked about clean energy, clean economy, people looked at us a little strange,” said Marc Jordan, CEO of the North Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce and another Wind Team member.
Now people sit up and pay attention, he said.
Paul Gayes, director of the Center for Marine and Wetland Studies at Coastal Carolina University and a Wind Team member, said that North Myrtle Beach has done on a local level what in most places is a state-led effort as far as studying wind power and preparing for it.
Gayes said that the Wind Team was formed and began to test land-based turbines and to educate area residents about the offshore wind energy potential because of problems with a wind energy farm already licensed in Massachusetts.
That farm, not far off the coast of Nantucket, has been licensed for 10 years but has yet to begin construction because of opposition.
Additionally, Gayes said that a partnership of CCU and Clemson, and others have begun ocean studies to determine the impact of waves on wind towers, the force of the wind they can expect more than a hundred feet above the surface, the paths with the most potential for hurricanes and a map of rock outcrops that lie among the generally-sandy bottom of the southeast Atlantic coast.
He said that even with the current spate of activity, it could be 10 years or more before the first turbine turns off South Carolina’s coast.
But it could be less as well, particularly if large manufacturers latch onto wind power as a way to meet clean energy goals.
Right now, said Gayes and Baldwin, the cost to generate power from offshore wind farms is higher than that of landborne fossil fuel driven plants.
But they expect the cost per megawatt to come down as more wind farms are built and more efficencies are discovered.