BRUNSWICK COUNTY – Two offshore wind leases were awarded earlier this month off the coast of Brunswick County. Statewide conservation groups are concerned but hopeful about future impacts, especially when it comes to avian species.
“North Carolina has the greatest offshore wind potential of any state on the Atlantic seaboard and also has the highest level of biodiversity,” said Greg Andeck, director of government relations for North Carolina Audubon. “It’s essentially ground zero for the country on how to balance offshore wind development with wildlife protection at the same time.”
The development of offshore wind requires weighing the need to acquire more clean energy essential to the survival of wildlife while implementing strategies that reduce harm to certain species.
“Our research has shown that if global temperatures are allowed to increase at the current rate, without slowing or decreasing, two-thirds of bird species are vulnerable to extinction by the end of the century,” Andeck explained. “If immediate action is taken to slow the pace, the vast majority can be protected.”
One way to achieve this is to use renewable energy, including offshore wind. Reducing emissions – greenhouse gases, nitrogen oxides, mercury, sulfur dioxide and acid rain – from other energy sources, such as oil, gas and coal, is essential to prevent rate of global warming to increase by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The May 11 offshore wind lease announcement for Brunswick County was an important milestone in Governor Roy Cooper’s strategy to achieve 2.8 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2023 and 8 gigawatts by 2040. The Brunswick County leases are expected to generate 1.3 gigawatts of offshore wind, enough to power 500,000 homes, when online in eight years.
READ MORE: Two offshore wind leases awarded off Brunswick County coast
With 8,000 components making up a wind turbine, there is an opportunity for the region to bring manufacturers into the supply chain, as well as bolster job creation. According to the Southeastern Wind Coalition, offshore wind is expected to generate more than $109 billion in economic output, with about $90 billion going to the manufacturing supply chain.
Some communities in Brunswick County have opposed the installation of wind turbines off the coast of its tourist towns. Officials at Bald Head Island, Ocean Isle Beach and Sunset Beach said it would be “awful”. Wind turbines should be installed more than 20 miles away, probably eliminating this problem. The plans will not be finalized for a few years.
Due to the distance offshore, Andeck explained that the wind turbines should not threaten the bald eagle population that inhabits Bald Head Island. The eagles – the namesake of the 5 Miles of Land – are seasonal and can be seen from early fall to late spring. They usually nest on Bluff Island, along the east coast of the island. Offshore wind leases are located further to the southwest.
“Bald eagles weren’t a significant concern for us with the final location of the lease,” he said.
Eagles, along with other species, tend to “close in on shore,” Andeck added. “They tend not to fly that far. There are other birds that we will pay more attention to.
The Audubon keeps a close eye on northern gannets, black-capped petrels, several species of gulls, warblers and red knots. They tend to fly farther offshore, crossing the open ocean, causing potential collisions with turbines.
“Many are affected by climate change and are at risk of significant population declines over time,” Andeck said.
Bird habitat, migration patterns and food sources are still under consideration with regard to the future offshore wind installation.
“It would be a real double whammy if, not only were people affected by climate change, but if wind projects were not properly designed and operated, adding additional impacts,” Andeck added.
One way to help avoid a potential collision is to use radar technology, Andeck explained. Radar detection equipment picks up the movement of individual birds or clusters. This sends a radio signal or wireless signal to a routing center which would temporarily stop the spinning blades.
According to Duke Energy, the company was the first to install IdentiFlight in 2018, combining artificial intelligence and optical camera technology to prevent birds from flying into turbines.
According to NC Audubon research, an estimated 140,000 to 500,000 birds are killed each year in collisions with the spinning rotor blades of turbines. Turbine blades can be 200 to 260 feet in length, which equates to a rotor swept area of 1.1 to 3.3 acres.
At least 250 species have suffered wind-related deaths in recent decades. At present, it does not appear to be causing rapid declines in any population.
Although there are still significant gaps in research data, due to the fact that offshore wind off the Atlantic coast is relatively new, Andeck said there are certain steps to be taken to protect wildlife. .
The US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has spent years determining the best area for offshore wind. The Wilmington East wind energy area, to which the Brunswick County leases refer, has been reduced several times from its original 270,000 acres based on comments regarding military actions, visual impacts and wildlife concerns. The resulting area is 110,091 acres divided into two equal parts.
One of the main reasons for the reduction was to avoid harming the habitat of the North Atlantic right whale, which was over 66,000 acres of ocean when originally proposed.
According to BOEM, an environmental assessment, including consultation with conservation bodies, is carried out before negotiating an offshore wind lease. Along with Duke Energy and TotalEnergies, BOEM will conduct additional environmental reviews and studies prior to development.
“BOEM included a stipulation, at the recommendation of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, requiring the use of…tracking stations on [weather] buoys to help fill information gaps on seabird and bat movements,” BOEM spokeswoman Lissa Eng told the Port City Daily.
Wind developers are strongly encouraged, although not mandated, to work with researchers and scientists, such as the Audubon Society, to ensure environmental threats are assessed before wind turbines are installed. A TotalEnergies spokesperson confirmed that the company plans to engage local stakeholders, including conservation groups, as part of its project development.
“Leading wind energy companies realize the benefits of engaging early on with researchers, scientists and environmental partners who have expertise in this area,” Andeck said. “When wind developers don’t engage stakeholders, they tend to see more regulatory delays or, in extreme cases, litigation to stop or slow projects from coming online.”
In Wyoming, Duke Energy was sued in 2013 for the deaths of 163 protected birds that died from collisions with turbines.
Andeck said it was still early in the planning stages for Duke Energy and TotalEnergies – winners of the two offshore leases near Brunswick County – but Audubon will reach out to help the two protect the birds.
“The state has an opportunity here,” he said. “It needs to take more leadership to establish a forum and a space where environmental experts and developers work together on these challenges.”
He added that six other states on the Atlantic coast already have technology advisory groups, pointing to potential conflicts with wind power and wildlife.
“We’re going to be very active in monitoring the potential impacts of the Kitty Hawk project as it goes along,” he added.
Andeck talks about Avangrid Renewbales which acquired the lease in 2017 to develop a project 27 miles off the Outer Banks. The 200 square mile area was selected to minimize impacts on military, commercial and recreational fishing, the shipping industry and the environment. It has the potential to produce around 2,500 megawatts, enough energy to power 700,000 homes.
“It will absolutely inform projects being built off Wilmington,” he said. “Organizations like Audubon can play a key role in transferring certain knowledge from one developer to another.”
While Andeck said offshore wind is “by no means a silver bullet”, it is another important tool in the toolbox to protect future wildlife. Changes in climate can cause significant damage to birds in terms of temperature, availability of fish, and severe weather events, which could knock eggs from nests and affect the energy of their migratory patterns.
“We basically have to walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said. “I think we can do it, but it’s important that developers, scientists and the environmental community come together to make this happen.”
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