Feds Release Draft Assessment For ‘Wilmington East’ Offshore Wind Plan

By Johanna F. Still, posted Dec 9, 2021
An area roughly 17 miles off Bald Head Island called Wilmington East could be leased, per proposed plans under consideration by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. (File photo)

The possibility of wind turbines off Southeastern North Carolina shoreline is coming into focus as federal and state interests signal strong support for advancing clean energy initiatives. Meanwhile, local concerns over adverse visual impacts persist.  

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) released a draft environmental assessment Wednesday, providing an updated overview of anticipated impacts prompted by potentially leasing the Wilmington East Wind Energy Area, roughly 128,000 acres offshore located about 17 miles from Bald Head Island.  

Up to three companies could lease the region, as outlined in BOEM’s proposed sale notice issued Nov. 1. Should a lease be awarded, the patch of ocean could generate 1.5 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind energy, enough to power half a million homes, according to BOEM estimates.  

That would get North Carolina more than halfway to its goal of 2.8GW of offshore wind energy by 2030, detailed in Gov. Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 218, issued in June. The governor’s commitment to clean energy was further christened through his signing of House Bill 951 in October, which orders state utility regulators to come up with a plan to cut carbon emissions by 70% by 2030.  

Duke Energy (NYSE:DUK) – which supports the latest clean energy legislation – is considering entering the wind energy realm by applying to lease Wilmington East. CEO Lynn Good first acknowledged the company’s interest in the area in its third quarter earnings call last month, as reported by WUNC

In an emailed statement, Duke Energy spokesperson Jennifer Garber said the company is committed to achieving its own net-zero carbon emissions goal by 2050 as it transitions its infrastructure to cleaner energy sources.  

“As we evaluate the potential for offshore wind and other next generation clean energy technologies … we will engage members of the communities we serve,” she wrote.  

The company does not have experience with offshore wind leases. It does, however, have wind experience on land through its unregulated renewables subsidiary, Duke Energy Sustainable Solutions. The spin-off owns and operates 23 wind farms across the country, according to Garber. 

North Carolina’s foray into offshore wind energy advanced with BOEM’s first leased offshore wind area, Kitty Hawk, a 122,000-acre span roughly 27 miles from Corolla.  

Avangrid Renewables, a subsidiary of Avangrid Inc. (NYSE:AGR), won a $9 million bid to lease the space, which first went into effect in 2017. Last December, the company submitted its construction plan and is awaiting BOEM approval before work commences. The company did not immediately return an inquiry seeking to determine whether it was also interested in leasing Wilmington East.  

Local opposition 

Wilmington East has opposition from some of its nearest local government neighbors. Work investigating the area began in 2014, when it was included alongside Kitty Hawk and a section closer to the Brunswick shoreline. Both Wilmington sections were nixed due to shoreline sight concerns, with Wilmington West also located in a right whale critical habitat. 

Local governments have objected to the plans to erect turbines in the Wilmington East area for years.  

Of chief concern to the local communities is a disruption of views. When crafting the Kitty Hawk area, BOEM pushed back the offshore area’s setback to about 39 miles, upon the request of the National Parks Service, to avoid visual impacts to the Bodie Island Lighthouse. 

A similar, repeated request from local governments of a minimum distance of about 27 miles offshore has not been incorporated in BOEM plans to date. BOEM did not immediately return a request to comment.  

“We have raised this objection persistently since at least 2015, with no response or clarification from BOEM regarding how it may (or may not) address the concern,” Village of Bald Head Island Mayor Andy Sayre wrote in his Sept. 12 comments on the proposed sale notice. “This is unacceptable.” 

Wilmington East begins about 17 miles offshore. As currently planned, there would be no visual impacts caused by meteorologic buoys installed in the area, according to the draft assessment. Meteorologic towers were initially considered in a 2015 assessment, but the industry has strayed from towers in favor of buoys, which reduce ocean and visual impacts. A full study on actual turbines would be forthcoming, after a lease is awarded. 

This summer, Caswell Beach, Sunset Beach, Ocean Isle Beach, Bald Head Island, and Brunswick County each adopted resolutions, calling for a 27-mile setback for offshore wind resources. Should BOEM take heed of this request, it would “turn potential opponents into supporters,” Sayre wrote.  

Brunswick County will review the draft environmental assessment, according to its spokesperson, but has no immediate plans to comment on it; Bald Head Island intends to comment on the assessment, according to its spokesperson. 

Economic, environmental positions still forming 

Wilmington Chamber of Commerce CEO Natalie English – who on Tuesday accepted a Clean Energy Champion Award from the Chambers for Innovation and Clean Energy and served as co-chair on Mayor Bill Saffo’s Clean Energy Task Force – said the chamber is still developing its position on the proposal to lease Wilmington East.  

“Our legislative agenda supports legislative action to reduce carbon emissions, modernize the grid, and keep energy prices as affordable as possible,” English wrote in an email. “We are very intrigued by the potential for investment and job growth in our region that would come with the leases. We have plans to consider the proposals in more detail early in 2022.” 

The N.C. Coastal Federation is meeting Friday to discuss and develop its stance on wind energy in general, according to coastal advocate Kerri Allen. The federation supports “responsible offshore wind development,” according to its website.  

The comment period on the proposed sale notice closes Jan. 3.  

To submit a comment on the supplementary environmental assessment released Wednesday, interested parties may comment online or attend two virtual public meetings. The first will be held Dec. 14 at 1 p.m., and the second will be held the following day, Dec. 15 at 5 p.m.  

Comments will be accepted through noon on Jan. 7.  

Correction: This article has been corrected to remove an inaccurate reference to the onset of Duke Energy Sustainable Solutions' wind farm work; though the brand itself was launched in April, the company's wind farm activity dates back to 2007. 

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