By Pat Garber
As Outer Banks communities and citizens prepare to fight off-shore oil drilling proposals, clean energy advocates are gearing up to see wind farms off North Carolina’s coast.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has identified three areas for potential wind farms, chosen to minimalize impacts on tourism and wildlife, which would also not conflict with military operations, fishing or shipping.
One, approximately 190 square miles, is off the Outer Banks.
The Kitty Hawk Wind Energy Area, 24 nautical miles off the coast, is what the bureau’s Brian Trevor described as “potentially one of the most viable wind resources anywhere.” At least five companies have expressed interest in developing wind projects off North Carolina.
The Obama administration has accelerated wind-energy development in response to climate change, and studies show that North Carolina has some of the most potent wind energy on the Atlantic coast.
The Interior Department has released an environmental study that supports the potential lease of 300,000 acres off the North Carolina coast for wind farms, concluding that there appears to be no significant environmental impact to offshore wind development
Zak Keith, lead organizer for the North Carolina Sierra Club, called the plan “a huge opportunity to create jobs and investment in the clean-energy sector without the risks of oil spills” from offshore drilling.
Not everyone thinks offshore wind turbines are such a good idea.
The agency took public comment at recent hearings and some expressed fear that the massive turbines could spoil views from beaches, harming tourism. The National Park Service has expressed similar concerns.
Other questions are: What will happen if the wind farms fail or are destroyed in storms? Who will be responsible for their removal?
There are also issues about how they affect wildlife.
Wind farms on land have caused large numbers of fatalities among migrating birds and bats.
Whales, sea turtles and other marine life could be affected as well. It is known that certain human-made noises, such as sonar, can cause whales and dolphins to beach and die. They might also interfere with the migratory paths of cetaceans and sea turtles.
And wind farms create noise.
Europe already has a number of offshore wind farms, with 22 farms in the seas surrounding the British Isles.
Aonghais Cook, a research ecologist with the British Trust for Ornithology, studied this issue last year for the Scottish government.
The researchers were surprised to find that of the surveyed birds, 99 percent either avoided wind farms entirely or successfully dodged the blades.
But he still has concerns.
“Ninety-nine percent sounds like a massive percent, but if you’re getting hundreds of thousands of birds passing through a wind farm, the 1 percent that doesn’t avoid it is still quite a high number,” Cook said.
Wind farms also may act as barriers in the flight paths of migrating birds, causing them to take a more circuitous route, stripping them of the energy they need to successfully continue their journey. Seabirds may also be displaced from their foraging grounds, making it difficult for them to feed themselves and their chicks.
The true scale of the impact on birds can’t be known until more research is done.
Until then, said Aedan Smith of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, it is “vital that individual developments avoid the most important places for seabirds.”
One of the issues the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) is looking at is “take” limits, which means: how many birds can legally be killed by the turbines?
Under the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, it is a crime to kill any of the more than 1,000 protected migratory birds, even if it is an accident. Although some deaths cannot be avoided in any energy production, USFWS wants tools to prosecute companies that fail to avoid or minimize harm to migratory birds.
Environmentalists are cautiously supportive of incidental take permits.
“American Bird Conservancy (ABC) applauds the USFWS for instituting a planning effort that could eventually result in an incidental take permit under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act,” said Michael Hutchins, who leads ABC’s wind energy campaign. “Many of our ecologically important migratory bird species–even the most common–are in precipitous decline and require additional protections.”
The National Wildlife Federation believes that wind energy is key to protecting wildlife from climate change, and is actively working to see that farms are located, constructed and operated in a way that do not threaten coastal and marine wildlife.
As they proceed forward, scientists and crews will take roughly 2,000 boat trips, mostly from Norfolk, to the Kitty Hawk Wind Energy Area over the next five years.
The results of the tests will determine whether this patch of ocean would be effective for generating wind power.
Private firms will depend on the study to get financing, and an auction for the rights to build and operate a wind farm is expected in 2016.
BOEM’s William Waskes said that while leases could be awarded as early as next year, it will probably be well into the next decade before any turbines are built.
He said once leases are awarded there would be additional environmental studies and oversight.
Companies awarded contracts would be responsible for maintaining or removing the turbines.
Pat Garber is the author of Ocracoke Wild (Down Home Press, 1995) and Ocracoke Odyssey (Down Home Press, 1999) both collections of nature essays, and the children’s book Little Sea Horse and The Story of the Ocracoke Ponies (Ocracoke Preservation Museum, 2006). Her book, Heart like a River: the story Sergeant Major Newsom Edward Jenkins 14th North Carolina Infantry, 1861-1865 (Schroeder Publications 2011) is based on a diary written by her great grandfather’s time fighting for the South in the Civil War. Her latest book, Paws and Tales (Schroeder Publications), is a work of fiction; a novel narrated by Kali, a sailor cat and Harvey, an island dog.
Pat has a background in anthropology, history and education, with a master’s degree from Northern Arizona University in Cultural Anthropology. She was born and raised near Richmond, Virginia.