About two-thirds of offshore ocean areas eyed for potential wind farm development are off limits for the spinning turbines, according to a federal panel mapping North Carolina's ocean waters.
The federal panel won't issue a formal recommendation until this summer, but after a second meeting last week in Raleigh, the panel has issued provisional maps that show much of the state's ocean waters as being unsuitable for offshore wind farms. The task force will likely meet again in June.
The task force has X'd out large swaths of the Atlantic Ocean for military operations, fish habitats and bird habitats. The panel has scaled back an area of 10,564 square miles down to 3,679 miles, and the work is still ongoing.
Still to be considered are concerns from the National Parks Service. The federal agency will assess one of the most contentious aspects of wind energy: the visual impacts of the tower-mounted turbines that exceed 400 feet in height to the highest tip of the blade.
The current map shows potential areas for wind farm development as close as 4 miles to the shore. At that distance, the turbines would be visible from the beach, leading to potential objections from the tourist industry and local residents.
Advocates say wind farms provide a limitless source of clean energy. And North Carolina's coastal regions offer some of the best wind resources along the nation's East Coast.
Developers that build wind farms, solar farms and other renewable energy projects would sell the electricity to Progress Energy, Duke Enegy and other power companies, which in turn would sell it to businesses, homeowners and other customres.
The U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, the agency that issues oil drilling permits, will use the recommendation by the BOEMRE task force to determine which ocean waters are suitable for wind farm development off the cost of North Carolina and other states. The map will exclude areas that conflict with shipping routes, military operations, environmental concerns or other issues.
Based on the task force's provisional map, virtually all of Onslow Bay would be off limits because it is used for military operations by airplanes, water craft and submarines.
That means that a proposed offshore wind farm for that area will have to be penciled in elsewhere if it is to become a a reality.
"We were in Onslow Bay, which is totally red-zoned," said Rob Propes, development manager for Apex Wind Energy.
Apex Wind Energy, a renewable developer that had planned to begin operating the first phase of its offshore wind farm by 2017, will now look for development potential in other offshore regions.
Propes said the company can work around the exclusion zones. Task forces working in other states have similarly reduced suitable areas for development.
The 3,679 square miles left on the map now could still accommodate 50,000 megawatss of offshore wind development, Propes said.
"There's a lot of great potential still out there," he said.
Apex Wind, based in Charlottesville, Va., is looking to develop as much as 2,000 megawatts of wind power offshore. That's equivalent to two nuclear plants if the wind farm were operating at full capacity.
Unlike nuclear plants, which generate electricity round-the-clock, offshore wind farms produce electricity more than a third of any given day, when the wind blows sufficiently strong to rotate the turbine.