The Weekly Surge: Blowin’ in the Wind, Can Grand Strand lead an energy revolution?

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Winds of change have swept through South Carolina, and they carry the seeds of a revolution. A decade into the 21st Century, the United States is faced with an aging and deteriorating infrastructure and a rapidly depleting supply of non-renewable resources. And the Grand Strand is at the epicenter of a new movement to restore the country’s infrastructure and economy by building on renewable resources; for residents of the Palmetto state, this means wind, a renewable, primary source of energy the Grand Strand has in abundance.

South Carolina is strategically poised to become a hub in this burgeoning industry, as up and down the East Coast, states such as Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia scramble to be the first in the race to develop offshore wind farms. Capitalizing on natural and manmade resources readily available in our own backyard, The Palmetto State may emerge as the big winner as teams of researchers, scientists and engineers from Coastal Carolina University, Clemson University, the South Carolina Energy office and Santee Cooper work collaboratively with industry and environmental leaders and state and local officials to harness the kinetic energy of the offshore wind industry. It’s a green revolution, combining environmental awareness with economic recovery, and has the potential to breathe new life – and jobs – into our area.

The development of the silicon chip led the way for Silicon Valley in Southern California as a hub of technology in the 1970s. Could off-shore wind do the same for South Carolina, and transform “Sun Fun City” with its beaches, bikers, bars, and bikinis into a hub of green technology, the Windy City of the Southeast Coast?

Dust in the wind

In 2006, President George W. Bush emphasized the need for the nation to diversify our electric portfolio and explore cost effective, renewable energy that could be produced domestically. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, wind power is capable of becoming a major contributor to the U.S. power supply during the next three decades. The DOE’s report, 20 Percent Wind Energy by 2030: Increasing Wind Energy’s Contribution to U.S. Electricity Supply, finds that the nation possesses natural resources to supply far in excess of 20 percent. In South Carolina, shallow coastal waters and wind speeds combine to make our location ideal for offshore wind energy. “South Carolina is in a unique position to promote offshore wind energy development,” says Toni Reale, Southeast Coastal Coordinator for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy ( SACE is a regional group focused on developing clean energy solutions to global warming/climate change, solutions that promote energy independence and benefit the local economy. “As of 2009, the United States has 35 gigawatts, or 35,000 megawatts, of onshore wind energy capacity installed. This amount of capacity provides enough electricity to power over nine million homes annually,” says Reale. “What the U.S. doesn’t have, which is 10 years behind Europe, is off shore wind energy.”

Reale points to findings from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a program of the Department of Energy, which estimates South Carolina has nearly 130,000 megawatts of offshore wind energy potential, enough to provide more than 260 percent of the state’s current electricity generation demand. The NREL estimates for each megawatt of offshore wind energy capacity built in U.S. waters, more than 20 direct jobs would be created.

Paul Gayes is the Director of the Center for Marine and Wetland Studies at Coastal Carolina University and is lead principal investigator of the Palmetto Wind Research Project. The project, in its seventh year, is a collaborative effort among CCU and North Carolina State University, Clemson University, Santee Cooper, the South Carolina Energy Office and several other state and local groups, to study the possibilities for offshore wind farming along our coast. “What you have is a team, working together, each with their own specialties, to methodically document wind as a renewable energy for the state,” says Gayes. “The South Carolina Energy Office did regional mapping and found very little potential on shore, but strong wind capabilities offshore.”

The U.S. Department of Energy, with support from President Obama, believes off-shore wind power is a viable, worthwhile investment for the U.S., with the ability to increase the nation’s energy security while stimulating the economy with jobs in wind energy support and services and preserving the environment. To further the cause, the DOE 2010 budget for wind energy was $79 million, with more than $24 million invested in research and testing alone. “We put in a proposal for a grant to get wind speed data and measurements off shore,” says Gayes. Funding from the DOE and Santee Cooper enabled the Palmetto Wind Research Project to install six buoys in two locations; three near Waites Island, an undeveloped barrier island under the jurisdiction of CCU off the coast near Little River, an area known as Long Bay, and three off Winyah Bay in Georgetown. Spaced at intervals of 1.5, 3 and 6 miles off the shoreline, buoys were put in place in July 2009 to collect data on wind speeds and frequency. In August, the researchers collected the buoys, compiled the data, and began to look at the next steps of the project. “There is a significant and viable resource out there,” says Gayes, “but while collecting data is relatively easy on land, it’s not so easy in the ocean.” Oceanic conditions make the logistics of installing, maintaining and servicing offshore instrumentation a challenge. Working with Santee Cooper, the Palmetto Wind Research Project hopes to have an offshore platform for an anemometer tower built in Winyah Bay, which would measure wind speeds and direction, taking measurements at up to 80 meters up, in search of what researchers call “the hub height” where the resource is the greatest. “The hope is to build the platform, get data at hub height and get financing to do that. Santee Cooper is designing the tower, and environmental studies are ready to be started.”

Against the Wind

Ports up and down the East Coast are in a race to corner the burgeoning U.S. offshore wind energy market. “What you’ve seen in recent history, is New England vying to be first in offshore energy, first to establish the industry and infrastructure,” says Gayes. “We should be leading but it hasn’t been done yet, and some of the issues are going to be public perception.” Demonstration projects, where the public can review findings and actually see wind turbines in action, are key to getting the public involved. “One of the lessons out of New England is to get accurate, valid information on the table because it is a public decision that should be based on facts, not assumptions or politics.”

Capitalizing on the momentum sweeping through the state, the city of North Myrtle Beach has asserted itself as a demonstration city for the wind energy movement, seeking to attract entrepreneurs and investors while raising public awareness. The North Strand Coastal Wind Team is a collaboration between the city of North Myrtle Beach and strategic partnerships with many of the same leaders in the wind industry involved in the Palmetto Wind Research Project. “Looking at wind maps you see and realize the further north you come on the Carolina coast, the stronger the wind is,” says North Myrtle Beach City Councilman and North Strand Coastal Wind Team member Greg Duckworth. “The Grand Strand in general is in kind of the sweet spot.” In late November, North Myrtle Beach and Santee Cooper installed the first wind turbine to the South Carolina electric grid, a 30-foot, 2.4 kilowatt Skystream wind turbine located on the oceanfront at 22nd Ave North Ocean Blvd., in the Cherry Grove section of North Myrtle Beach. “What better place to get the message out?” says Duckworth. “Wind is here. You can see it, feel it, touch it and get a handle on what it is all about.”

The turbine begins to generate electricity when the wind speed reaches eight miles per hour, and runs at full capacity at speeds of 29 miles per hour. While the turbine contributes to the state’s electric grid, it produces only a small amount of power, about enough to run a refrigerator. The main purpose of the turbine is as a demonstration project to educate the public and raise awareness about the future of wind energy.

The turbine installation served to kick off the Southern Wind 2010 Conference, held Nov.30 – Dec. 1 at the Avista Resort in North Myrtle Beach. The convention brought in local, state and regional leaders in wind energy innovation, research and industry, all grateful for the opportunity to meet and compare notes, most willing to return again. While another conference has been discussed, nothing has been scheduled – yet. “Wouldn’t it be nice, once this thing gets going, to have people come from around the country and around the world?” says Duckworth. “These efforts could make us a kind of epicenter for the industry – if the folks in Silicon Valley could do it, so can we.” South Carolina could very well lead the way in what is being called the next industrial revolution. “It’s time for South Carolina to step up and say we’re going to be a leader in the green industry,” says Duckworth. “We’ve got the Clemson Drive Train Test Facility in Charleston. We’ve got folks at General Electric in the Upstate building turbines. (As one of the largest suppliers of wind turbines in the world, General Electric assembles turbines at its plant in Greenville) There’s a lot happening with the economy. Add our two cents to the equation, and it’s more than just the wind – it’s a whole economic development platform.”

Reap the Wild Wind

Monroe Baldwin is also a member of the North Strand Wind Team, and he is the Chairman of the Economic Development Council for the North Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce. He’s excited about the potential harnessed in wind power. “This has the potential to be a huge industry for South Carolina,” says Baldwin. Data from the turbines in North Myrtle Beach will reach across the state to Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College to be used as part of its Green Technology program, and will also be reviewed by researchers at the Savannah River Laboratory in Aiken. “You’ve got people from every direction coming together, and at some point it has to turn into a business, or it’s just an academic concept.” Baldwin says opportunities exist for environmental tourism, events like the recent wind conference and educational field trips for schools and universities, as well as in industry, servicing and installing small land-based turbines.

As part of its multifaceted, community-based wind program, North Myrtle Beach would like to set itself up as a test bed for small wind energy systems. Through a public education grant from the South Carolina Energy Office, the North Strand Wind Team will install six small scale wind turbines housed with electric vehicle recharging stations along several public beach access spots in North Myrtle Beach, a project scheduled to be completed this year. “There are a lot of us that feel that the technological advancements in wind turbines are going to come from the small turbine rather than the large ones,” says Baldwin. He says while the larger turbines require major investment, small turbines can be more feasible to produce. “A lot of people in this country have an idea for a wind turbine,” says Baldwin. “The small turbines, you are able to tap into the garage inventor. They can come to North Myrtle Beach with their plans; we’re a demonstration city and that is what we encourage.” The opportunities in wind energy in North Myrtle Beach allow small businesses and investors to get in on the ground floor of an emerging industry. “Everything is ready,” says Baldwin, “We have a grant in place to bring in demonstration turbines, zoning in place to allow turbines to be placed on rooftops of hotels and residences, but we don’t have anybody in town yet selling and installing wind turbines.”

An important part of installing a small scale wind turbine is knowing how to uninstall it when you need to. “The most important thing if you put one on a building, home or business – if a hurricane is coming, you’ve got to be able to take the turbine down.” Baldwin says. “You might know how to take it down today because you put it up, but will the person 10 years from now?” Baldwin says inspections would be needed every year or two to make sure there is an assigned person familiar with how to dismantle the turbine. He likens it to sprinkler systems. “Those things constantly have problems, which you would never know about if it weren’t inspected every year.” Baldwin emphasizes a need and an opportunity for professionally trained people looking to break into an emerging new industry. “What would a small business selling, installing and maintaining small scale wind turbines look like? Your local air conditioning company,” says Baldwin. “They’d offer several different models and sizes, know the correct positioning for them, maybe offer some financing.” Baldwin would like to see communities along the Grand Strand allow for small-scale business and residential turbines in their zoning laws and ordinances, and he’d also like to see to see tax breaks and incentives for using wind energy akin to those given for solar panels.

The offshore wind industry in South Carolina is a grassroots movement among academics, researchers, and emerging new businesses being built from the ground up, and the Grand Strand stands on the verge of a tremendous opportunity. “We’re moving technology back to the U.S.,” says Baldwin. “This could turn into the biggest economic development story we’ve seen in a long time.”

Candle in the Wind

While South Carolina has a reputation for blue skies, sandy beaches and warm ocean breezes, unfortunately the state also has a reputation for being heavily invested in energy sources that contaminate those natural resources. According to the Department of Energy, nuclear power provides for 50 percent of the state’s electricity generation, while another 40 percent is supplied by coal. The state’s only substantial energy resource is offshore wind and water. To meet the mandates of the DOE’s 20 percent by 2030 scenario, Santee Cooper, the state owned electric and water utility giant, has been involved in every facet in the research and development of wind energy as a clean, renewable resource. One of the next steps in the process is the construction of an ocean anemometer tower off the coast of Georgetown. Like the wind buoy project, the anemometer tower would gauge wind speeds and durations and would be used to further research the potential for wind farms in our area. Santee Cooper has contracted with a leading international consulting firm called COWI, Consulting with Engineering, Environmental Science and Economics, and its American subsidiary, Ocean and Coastal Consultants, for the equipment, platform and foundation for the anemometer tower. “We have the contract to do the site survey and design for the anemometer tower, but one of the issues will be what will it cost,” says Santee Cooper’s Gore. It is estimated the anemometer tower could end up costing as much as $4 million. “What we have to do is balance the responsibility to take this research forward alongside our responsibility to provide affordable and reliable power to our customers,” says Gore. “It’s striking that balance, always mindful our customers are ultimately paying the costs.”

For South Carolina, not investing in infrastructure and development of coastal wind resources could still leave coastal residents paying a hefty cost. According to Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, our region and the nation as a whole needs to reduce the amount of dangerous and ozone depleting carbon dioxide emissions by reducing reliance on coal and other non-renewable fossil fuels.

In addition to being dependent upon coal, South Carolina is one of the top producers of nuclear energy in the country, and S.C. Senator Lindsey Graham has been vocal in his support that nuclear power plants be included under the umbrella of so-called “clean energy.” While the state’s seven nuclear power plants don’t emit harmful greenhouse gasses, they generate toxic waste and pose a tremendous risk in the event of a nuclear malfunction. In addition to reducing dependence on nuclear energy and coal, wind energy also has the potential to reduce our national dependence on oil. In a press release on U.S. energy independence issued in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Senator Graham said, “I remain committed to safely expanding off-shore drilling because I know it will be part of our nation’s energy plans for years to come.”

Not so, according to Toni Reale of the Southern Clean Energy Alliance. “The energy offshore wind generates may be able to supplant some petroleum-fired electricity,” she says. “In the Northeast, millions of homes still rely on fuel oil as a primary source of home heating. If those homes were to convert to electric heating, offshore wind energy could supplant that source of oil consumption.” (Graham, meanwhile, did not return repeated requests for additional comment for this article).

Reale says the ultimate wind-for-oil substitution will require a significant deployment of plug-in electric vehicles, and those plug-in electric vehicles will require vast quantities of new renewable energy sources, such as offshore wind energy. According to the SCEA, an engaged citizenry and proactive leadership are necessary to affect a true green revolution. The question South Carolinians face in regard to offshore wind power is not so much what will happen if we step up and become a leader in this newly emerging industry, but what will become of our coast if we don’t?