Strong winds off the coast could power a clean energy economy in North Carolina

The Editorial Board
·3 min read

To learn the direction of energy production in North Carolina, look to a weather vane. It’s pointing toward the wind.

Last year, Duke Energy, the state’s largest electric utility, and Dominion Energy of Virginia called off their effort to build the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The $8 billion natural gas project would have tied North Carolina to fossil fuel-based energy for a generation.

This month, a consultant’s report prepared for the North Carolina Department of Commerce said the state is “well positioned” to go in a new direction by investing in an offshore wind power industry that is expected to boom over the next few decades.

Last week, President Joe Biden proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that would provide billions of dollars to develop clean energy, including making $3 billion in federal loans available for projects related to offshore wind development.

Politico described Biden’s goal of having offshore wind turbines generate 30 gigawatts of power by 2030 as “growing the industry from almost zero today to the size of New England’s entire power sector in a decade.”

The governors of North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland have joined forces to make their states leaders in wind power. In 2020 they announced a wind power partnership. It will coordinate development of the largely untapped energy source off the East Coast as well as the industries that will support it.

What at one time may have seemed like a marginal, even fanciful, source of energy – windmills at sea – has become a central part of national and state plans to move away from fossil fuels. Europe already has installed more than 5,000 offshore wind turbines across 12 countries.

Drew Ball, state director of the advocacy group Environment NC, said a study by Environment America estimated that North Carolina’s offshore wind resource could provide 465 percent of the state’s total 2019 energy use. “We could power our state more than four times over just with wind,” he said. “The wind is there. We just have to harness it.”

Building offshore wind turbines would help slow climate change and would also decrease environmental damage by reducing the dirty process of extracting and transporting fossil fuels. Just last August, a pipeline breach spilled about 1.2 million gallons of gasoline near Huntersville. Duke Energy customers will be paying for years to help clean out the utility’s coal ash pits.

Wind power has its own environmental issues, but not on the scale of fossil fuels. As Ball noted, “No one has ever heard of an offshore wind spill.”

Economic boost

Beyond its environmental benefits, wind power could also bring strong economic gains not only in construction and maintenance, but in manufacturing of turbines. The Department of Commerce report said North Carolina’s manufacturing sector could develop coastal factories to make wind turbine towers and blades that are so large they can only be transported by water.

“Wind energy means new jobs for North Carolinians,” said Machelle Sanders, North Carolina’s commerce secretary. “Just like biotechnology was for us many years ago, today clean energy represents an industry of the future and North Carolina always embraces the future.”

There are obstacles between the vision and the reality of North Carolina as a leader in U.S. offshore wind power. For one, Biden’s enormous infrastructure proposal will have to get past Republican resistance in Congress. Congressional Republicans may find opposing wind power has little political support. Polls show popular support for it even among Republicans.

There are also legitimate concerns about how building and operating the massive offshore turbines could affect the fishing industry, wildlife, military flights and tourism. These concerns should be addressed in consultation with stakeholders.

Though not yet a sure thing for North Carolina, wind power is much closer to becoming one. There’s no doubt about where the pursuit of more clean energy should go next. Go where the wind blows.