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At Offshore Wind Summit, Infrastructure Talk Focuses On Physical Components

By Johanna F. Still, posted Jul 20, 2022
Environmental and wind experts, including UNCW professor Osku Backstrom (center), address the audience during the North Carolina Offshore Wind and Wildlife Solutions Summit. (Photo by Johanna F. Still)

Environmental and offshore wind researchers shared their insights at the N.C. Offshore Wind and Wildlife Solutions Summit this week, weighing the balance of protecting coastal resources with the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through alternative energy sources. 

Hosted by the N.C. Coastal Federation and other environmental groups, the summit on Tuesday in Wilmington included discussions surrounding the protection of avian species; marine mammals and sea turtles; and fish and benthic habitats.

It also featured a panel discussion on the topic of infrastructure – how the wind-harvested energy will actually connect to the grid. 

These discussions are timely considering the May auction for two offshore leases off the coast of Bald Head Island. In the auction (the second in North Carolina, behind Kitty Hawk in 2017), a Duke Energy subsidiary and TotalEnergies Renewables USA won the bids, betting a combined $315 million for the rights to plan wind farms in the space located about 17 nautical miles from shore. 

It could take about eight years until installation begins, following a robust regulatory approval process based on forthcoming submitted plans that have yet to begin. Construction at the Kitty Hawk project by Avangrid Renewables will begin by 2024, according to current plans. Representatives for the wind developers were in attendance at the summit, according to an event organizer. 

The panel on infrastructure focused on the physical structure of the turbines and how they would be situated on the seafloor. Three methods are utilized, including the monopile (by far the most predominant) that involves the structure being forced into the ground, a multi-legged steel jacket foundation or a gravity-based concrete foundation.

Panelist Eric Hines, director of the offshore wind energy graduate program at Tufts University, advocated for the use of gravity-based concrete foundations, though they are currently far less commonly utilized. 

Doing so could create far more jobs, he said, with a 10:1 ratio for job creation of concrete to monopole structures. Foundation choice affects price by 2%, he said, which is a sliver of the overall gargantuan amounts investors and energy companies are pouring into the industry. 

“The number of jobs that could be created from this is enormous,” Hines said of the concrete bases. “This is the single greatest opportunity to create U.S. jobs from what we've seen so far.”

Concrete bases are also create less noise during installation, the panelists said, which can minimize negative impacts on marine life. Underwater foundations can be crafted with a “nature-influenced design” welcoming structure-drawn species. In some cases, marine activity has actually increased in areas where monopiles have been installed, University of North Carolina Wilmington professor Roger Shew said, but additional studies are needed. 

Offshore wind is still nascent in the U.S., with just seven turbines in operation, compared to 5,000 in Europe, Hines said. These operations generate less than 1% of the overall energy production in the U.S. 

Gov. Roy Cooper imposed a goal last year of producing 2.8 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind by 2030 – Wilmington East could generate 1.3GW, enough to power half a million homes. Utility regulators are in the midst of reviewing Duke Energy’s new carbon plan, which legislators have required must reduce 2005-level carbon emissions by 70% by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

A grid connection point for Wilmington East presents a major unknown. Panelists encouraged the burying of subsea cables when possible to prevent damage from hurricanes and anchors and to minimize electric and magnetic impacts on marine life. However, the seafloor in the Wilmington East Wind Energy Area includes hard sediment, so building structures on top of the cables in areas they cannot be buried to create a barrier is recommended, Shew said. 

Hines said those involved in planning should consider a regionalized and zoomed-out approach. States tend to “assume a competitive posture with respect to one another” when trying to capture the supply chain, Hines said. “If you zoom out and you really look at what we have to do to get to 2050, there's gonna be plenty for everyone. And in fact, we need to be ramping up a lot faster than we are,” he said. 

Connection points with the grid should be minimized so landing points are optimized to serve greater national energy needs, Hines said. 

In the last segment of the summit, filmmaker, attorney and author Tom Earnhardt addressed the urgency of the need to reduce society’s reliance on carbon emissions, given the threat of sea level rise, which he documented in 2006 in his UNC-TV series “Explore North Carolina.”

“Our options are narrowing," he said, "and our timetable is narrowing."

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