The next step in North Myrtle Beach’s years-long drive to become the offshore wind energy capital of South Carolina will begin next month, when Coastal Carolina University, the University of South Carolina and others begin the work to label areas in the Atlantic Ocean off South Carolina as good and not-so-good for the development of wind energy farms.
Paul Gayes, director of the Burroughs & Chapin Center for Marine and Wetland Studies at Coastal Carolina University, said Wednesday the study will use $750,000 from the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management with a match from the state to narrow down a broad swath of ocean to areas that can then be studied further by private companies that might build the farms.
The step after that will come early next year when Sen. Greg Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach, reintroduces a bill that would allow utility companies that wanted to build a demonstration wind tower offshore to apply to the state’s Public Service Commission to raise rates to fund the project.
The bill was stopped in the last session when one senator objected to it, and Hembree said he has worked to change that vote in the upcoming session.
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After that will come larger projects, and should they prove successful, a move to utility-scale offshore wind farms, Brian O’Hara, president of the Southeastern Coastal Wind Coalition, said at a Wind Energy Symposium at CCU.
“Looking long-term, I see tremendous business opportunities in renewable energy,” said O’Hara, whose group was formed by businesses and industries.
The steps mark a progression from a movement that took hold locally in North Myrtle Beach several years ago with the formation of the North Strand Coastal Wind Team, the erection of small wind turbines in the city and the embrace of city government and residents to being the place where wind farm transmission lines would come ashore.
The city decided to incorporate conduits for the cables in its stormwater outfall pipes. The city’s power grid now can take in 300 megawatts from wind farms without new construction, and the legislature has recognized North Myrtle Beach for the work it has done to prepare for wind power.
O’Hara said that South Carolina is uniquely positioned to take advantage of the East Coast development of offshore wind energy.
The federal government has identified the area from Virginia to Georgia as being the best for wind farm development on the East Coast. North and South Carolina have the top sites in the region, O’Hara said.
And South Carolina has the lowest estimated offshore construction costs in the nation, he said.
Cost is a significant factor. Currently, wind farms are more expensive to develop than onshore, fossil fuel based electricity. But the cost of offshore generation is coming down, and as fossil fuel costs continue to climb, the gap will close.
It would be unrealistic to expect consumers and businesses to easily accept the jump in their electricity bills to fund wind farms at their current cost, said Steve Spivey, manager of renewable energy for Santee Cooper.
But now is the time to take the steps to prepare for the cost convergence, said Hembree and Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach.
There are environmental concerns, said CCU students during a presentation at the forum, and they -- like other things to do with offshore wind energy -- need more study so they can be factored into the eventual development.
But the potential economic benefits are striking, O’Hara said.
Most of the components of offshore wind towers are too big to be manufactured inland and then transported to a port so the plants need to be along the coast. Then there are the jobs of those who will be needed to provide maintenance and other services to the towers.
Additionally, the tower’s foundations attract fish and become magnets for recreational fishing. More casual tourists will want to ride offshore to see the farms.
The forum drew people from throughout South Carolina, the Southeast and beyond. Jason Waskey, leader of the White House non-governmental organization stakeholder outreach on climate, was among the attendees.
“The one thing great about this whole conversation,” Tom Mullikin, executive in residence at the B&C marine and wetlands center, said in conclusion, “it’s forward thinking.”