Two companies, one based in North Carolina and other one French, agreed last week to pay the federal government more than $300 million to lease two patches of empty ocean roughly 20 miles off the coast of Southeastern North Carolina. The plan is to dot the empty seascape with wind turbines that could reach 800 feet into the sky, helping to power up to 500,000 homes with renewable, clean green energy.
It's an ambitious goal, especially for a country that has been notoriously slow compared to its Western peers in jumping on the offshore renewable energy bandwagon due to a host of economic, environmental, political and even not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) concerns.
So when will the spinning turbines start producing clean energy for North Carolina's power grid?
Well, that depends on a host of factors, experts say. But even if everything falls into place, energy production from the Brunswick County fields by the end of the decade would be an aggressive timeline. An earlier lease proposal to develop a 2.5 gigawatt (GW) wind farm 27 miles off the Outer Banks was won by Avangrid Renewables in 2017. Construction on the project, which could eventually power 700,000 homes in northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia, could start around 2026, according to a company timeline.
Nothing, however, is guaranteed for the energy companies or the backers of wind energy.
"You're absolutely taking a risk," said Katharine Kollins, president of the Southeastern Wind Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for wind energy development in the Southeastern U.S. "It's a big risk."
She said many things can go wrong, from securing the numerous permits, regulatory approvals and financing for the wind farms to maintaining investor confidence and even political support for projects that can take years to come to fruition.
But building an onshore pipeline can be just as if not more risky, as supporters of the now defunct Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would have transported natural gas from West Virginia and Virginia to Eastern North Carolina, can attest, Kollins said. And pressure is mounting on numerous levels for energy companies to do more to reduce the manmade warming of the planet.
Developers: With pipeline canceled, big factories will reject Eastern North Carolina
"If we truly want to move toward a decarbonized electrical grill, we need to find ways to move away from fossil fuels," she said.
Navigating potential hiccups was hinted at by Stephen De May, president of Duke Energy North Carolina, in a release after the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) announced the Charlotte-based utility had won the auction for one of the two Brunswick County offshore lease sites.
"As we continue to assess the area and project potential, we look forward to listening and learning from diverse stakeholders and community members in the region to ensure we are being thoughtful about all aspects of the potential project," he said.
Wind turbines: What would they look like off the Brunswick coast?
One group that is keeping a close eye on the government's growing push to develop offshore wind farms along the U.S. East Coast is the Center for Biological Diversity. Of particular concern to the group and other environmental organizations are the potential impacts on the North Atlantic right whale, of which fewer than 400 individuals remain. Center spokesperson Kristen Monsell said offshore wind projects were being proposed throughout the whale's range, from New England to the Southeast.
"(The government) seems to be ignoring the cumulative impacts of being forced to navigate multiple projects throughout their habitat in particular," she said via email. "Right whales provide numerous benefits to our oceans, and we need to ensure adequate protections are in place to protect them."
Building an industry
Along with Duke, the other winning bidder last week was TotalEnergies Renewables USA, a branch of Paris-based TotalEnergies. This North Carolina lease win follows the award in February of a lease to develop a 3 GW wind farm off New York and New Jersey.
"Being awarded this lease, our second offshore wind project in the U.S., demonstrates the strength of our commitment to the country and to our transformation to a multi-energy company," said Patrick Pouyanné, chairman and CEO of TotalEnergies, in a release.
Like TotalEnergies, Duke is feeling investor, political and even customer pressure to expand its "green energy" portfolio.
But unlike other states — such as New York, New Jersey and Virginia — that mandate a certain percentage of energy be produced from offshore wind, North Carolina is leaving it up to the state Utilities Commission to determine the best way to achieve a 70% carbon reduction from power plants by 2030 and to reach net-zero by 2050. Gov. Roy Cooper, however, has set offshore wind development goals of 2.8 GW off the N.C. coast by 2030 and 8 GW by 2040, enough energy to power roughly 2.3 million homes.
That lack of legally binding commitments was one of the reasons why the recent auction of six lease sites off the New York-New Jersey coast, in an area known as the New York Blight, brought in $4.4 billion for the U.S. government, much more than what Washington earned in the lease of the two North Carolina sites.
Duke on Monday released its proposed Carbon Plan, which included utilizing 800-1600 megawatts of offshore wind in three of the four options to reduce emissions.
Unique among offshore wind lease bids so far, the Brunswick County auction included a 20% credit for bidders that committed to programs or initiatives that support workforce training programs for the offshore wind industry, development of a U.S. domestic supply chain for the offshore wind energy industry, or both. According to BOEM, the two recent North Carolina leases will generate $42 million for the programs.
While it will be up to Duke and Total to see where they spend the money, it likely will be somewhere within a reasonable distance of the wind farm locations. A site that already has been floated by state officials as a possible coastal hub for the offshore wind industry is Radio Island, a site between Morehead City and Beaufort in Carteret County where the N.C. Ports Authority owns 154 acres of undeveloped land.
In environmental documents submitted last month, the ports suggested that facilities that could be built at Radio Island include a 200,000-square-foot manufacturing plant for offshore wind equipment and 100,000 square feet of warehouse space. A pier that the ports already has on site could also be modified to accommodate roll-on/roll-off vessels, new berthing acres would be added, and the construction of additional rail spurs. The property already sits on a 45-foot channel with easy and close access to the Atlantic, a valuable selling point since many of the wind towers and giant blades are so big that they can only be realistically transported by water.
The Cooper administration appeared to double down on Radio Island when the governor proposed including $20 million for infrastructure improvements at the site in his 2022-23 budget proposal released last week, although any spending would require the approval of the GOP-controlled General Assembly.
But offshore wind isn't the only industry state officials believe could work at Radio Island. Officials have also mentioned facilities to support the automotive industry as possibilities for the site. VinFast, a Vietnamese-based automotive manufacturer, announced plans in March to build its first U.S.-based production plant near the Triangle. To land the Vietnamese company, North Carolina wooed it with nearly $800 million in job-creation incentives and site-preparation work. Chatham County also promised $400 million in property tax breaks.
Reporter Gareth McGrath can be reached at GMcGrath@Gannett.com or @GarethMcGrathSN on Twitter. This story was produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund and the Prentice Foundation. The USA TODAY Network maintains full editorial control of the work.