Feds consider offshore wind leases, debate visibility

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Offshore wind production for the state is still years away, but the federal government is preparing to lease three sites where powerful turbines could harness the wind’s energy. Two of the sites are near Wilmington and the other is off Hatteras Island.

Wrightsville Beach residents wouldn’t be able to see the tall turbines, but they would be visible from Bald Head and south-facing Brunswick County beaches. That concerns some residents of Bald Head Island, which will be within 10 miles of one of three sites.

“We do agree that we need to move to renewable energy,” said Carrie Moffett, executive director of the Bald Head Association, the largest homeowners association on the island.

But residents of the island accessible only by ferry or private boat moved there for a reason, she said.

It could hurt tourism if the turbines are visible, Moffett said during last week’s meeting of the North Carolina Renewable Energy Task Force.

Residents also worry about night visibility and the impact on property values. Federal Aviation Administration regulations would require lights at a height of around 1,000 feet, as regulated by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which presented a progress update during the meeting.

The bureau narrowed down potential sites to those three, but North Carolina officials prefer a 24-mile buffer. The National Parks Service has asked for a 33.7-mile buffer off Hatteras because of the view from the Bodie Island Lighthouse, a tourist attraction.

Moffett cited similar concerns about the view from Old Baldy, the island’s historic lighthouse.

Not all residents believe the wind turbines will be detrimental. Suzanne Dorsey, executive director of the Bald Head Island conservancy, which works to preserve the largely unspoiled island environment, said her organization feels the impacts could be mitigated. As long as that’s the case, the conservancy is leaning in favor of offshore wind development.

“So right now, we support wind energy off Bald Head Island,” she said.

Many environmental groups and other supporters tout wind energy as a way to reduce the use of fossil fuels and the carbon-based emissions they create. Opponents, some of whom support offshore gas and oil drilling, cite concerns about the impact on tourism, quality of life and fishing — things that are important to coastal areas.

The N.C. Division of Environmental Quality has raised questions about visibility of the offshore turbines, particularly as it applies to tourism. Donald van der Vaart, secretary of the department, spoke during last week’s meeting of the energy task force and reiterated those concerns, as did two division of environmental quality staff members who sit on the committee.

Van der Vaart has publicly supported both wind energy and offshore drilling. He discussed the abundant wind resources but reiterated his department’s concerns about making sure the turbines aren’t visible from the shoreline.

But Bureau of Ocean Energy Management officials said pushing wind farms farther offshore would reduce the size of the sites up for lease and potentially increase the cost of harnessing the wind energy.

Zak Keith, lead organizer for the N.C. Sierra Club, has attended most of the meetings of the task force, which includes representatives from state and federal agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard, the N.C. Division of Environmental Quality and fish and wildlife agencies, as well as elected officials from coastal communities.

The group met several times before Gov. Pat McCrory took office, but last week’s was the first meeting in McCrory’s tenure, Keith said.

“A lot of the questions and concerns that were raised at that meeting could have been addressed over the years,” he said.

Still, he said the Sierra Club is pleased the process is moving forward.

“We are still many, many years off,” he said, but added it’s important that North Carolina continue preparations to harness offshore wind resources for clean energy.

email tricia@luminanews.com

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