One of President Joe Biden’s day-one executive orders sought to double offshore wind by 2030, and North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper issued an executive order for developing 2.8 gigawatts (GW) of wind turbine-generated energy by 2030 and 8 GW by 2040. Both Biden and Cooper justified their orders by declaring they would fight climate change, create jobs, and grow the economy.
Such an extreme, rushed government intervention in the critical energy sector makes it imperative for policymakers and the public to ask hard questions about it, which this paper seeks to do. It is indebted to the work of Mitch Rolling and Isaac Orr from the Center of the American Experiment in analyzing and estimating the cost to North Carolina’s electricity consumers building and operating 8 GW of new offshore wind capacity. It also offers several areas worth further exploration.
Here in brief are some of the major findings and areas worth greater examination as highlighted in this paper:
Cost and Impacts to Electricity Consumers of Building and Operating 8 GW of Offshore Wind
- This report shows that the cost of building 8 GW of offshore wind capacity in North Carolina would range from $55.7 billion to $71.5 billion.
- By 2040 electricity rates would increase by 28 percent to 36 percent over their 2020 levels. It would result in an average cost increase of $330 to $425 per year per consumer, reaching as high as $641 and $823 per consumer in 2040.
- New offshore wind energy facilities are highly expensive sources of electricity generation to build, from $137.00 to $164.39 per megawatt-hour (MWh). In contrast, North Carolina’s nuclear plants generate electricity at a small fraction of the cost: $21.71 per MWh. North Carolina’s natural gas plants generate electricity for $35.83 per MWh.
CO2 Emissions and Climate Impact
- The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) acknowledges that “regional climate impacts are a function of global emissions” and that “there would be no collective impact on global warming as a result of offshore wind projects.”
- North Carolina occupies only 0.00027 of the surface of the Earth and therefore can make no measurable impact on the planet’s climate, even if we stopped producing everything. That said, throughout the 21st century energy-based CO2 emissions have been falling dramatically in North Carolina already.
- Even with the estimated reductions of 11.9 million metric tons of CO2 per year, it would take nearly 27 years just to offset the additional CO2 added by China in one year — not even counting the greater emissions from all the new coal-fired electricity generation China has announced since 2020.
- No dispassionate analysis would find offshore wind to be a viable solution to energy-based CO2 pollution in North Carolina. A focus on zero-emissions energy that favored lower costs, higher capacity factors, reliability, and dispatchability would invariably favor more nuclear generation. Focusing on lowering emissions and costs while retaining reliability and dispatchability would favor more natural gas generation.
Job Creation and Economic Growth
- North Carolina regularly ranks at or near the top in economic and business climate rankings. Years of North Carolina policymakers choosing to cut taxes and regulations, keep the state budget in line with inflation and population growth, and add to the Savings Reserve brought about dramatic improvements in the state’s employment and economic growth and had the state better positioned than most other states for the economic upheaval of the Covid-19 pandemic and governmental responses to it.
- State revenue growth as a result of new economic activity has resulted in large budget surpluses annually since 2014-15.
- New analysis estimated that building and operating 8 GW of offshore wind energy generation off the coast of North Carolina could cost 45,000 to 67,000 jobs from electricity price hikes and their downstream effects on the economy.
- Nothing suggests North Carolina lacks the job creation and economic growth to justify such a hurried and demonstrably risky government intervention on behalf of a particular industry to the exclusion of others.
Impacts from large electricity price hikes, especially on the poor
- Electricity price increases behave like regressive tax hikes.
- The upper limit for home energy prices to be considered affordable is six percent of household income, but a significant number of North Carolina residents already spend between six to nine percent of their income on energy.
- In 2021 the poorest families in North Carolina devoted as much as 29 percent of their income to energy costs — money they could therefore not use for food, clothing, rent or mortgage, medication or medical care, savings, or other important ways to help their families.
Impacts on coastal tourism
- A 2016 survey from N.C. State found that North Carolina beach tourists are highly sensitive to viewshed disruption by wind turbines. A majority (54 percent) would not rent a vacation home if turbines were visible at all, and the rest would only do so with discounted rates (and 26 percent wanted completely unrealistic discounts).
- A 2015 BOEM study found that wind turbines of 577 feet tall would “dominate” the horizon within 15 nautical miles from shore. Turbines under consideration for offshore North Carolina are up to 1,042 feet tall — 80 percent taller. By way of comparison, the tallest building in N.C. is the Bank of America Corporate Center in Charlotte at 871 feet.
- At 172 square miles, the Wilmington East wind energy area 15 nautical miles off the coast of Bald Head Island would be more than three times the size of the City of Wilmington (53 square miles).
- This problem of viewshed disruption poses potentially very large negative impacts on affected communities’ tourism economies and property values. When developments similarly threatened to disfigure ridgelines and harm mountain tourism and property values by dotting North Carolina mountaintops with condominiums and hotels, legislators quickly passed the Mountain Ridge Protection Act to prevent it.
Impacts on commercial fishing, sensitive habitats, and endangered whales, fish, turtles, and birds
- 1,665 members of fishing communities in every coastal U.S. state warned BOEM about offshore wind energy’s threat to their industry and marine habitats, biodiversity, and oceanography, and BOEM’s decision for the Vineyard Wind project even anticipated commercial fishing would abandon those sites and lose income.
- Negative effects on many different fish and mammal populations from offshore wind facilities include population impacts and habitat disruption from site selection, construction, and operational noise. These effects could go unobserved even as turbines interfere with the ability to estimate commercial seafood populations for determining sustainable harvest levels.
- The oceanic waters off the coast of North Carolina are home to certain highly unique features and sensitive habitats that would suffer unknown and barely studied disruptions from offshore wind energy development.
- Offshore wind turbines would threaten the habitat and migration of several endangered whales, turtles, fish, and birds.
- Turbines are known bird killers, but while it is possible to survey and estimate how many and what kinds of birds turbines kill onshore, there is no way to count the carcasses of dead birds dropped in the ocean.
Marine vessel radar disruption and military radar interference
- Wind turbines pose a significant danger of disrupting marine vessel radar, which all ships use for navigation, including especially commercial and for-hire recreational fishing vessels. The electromagnetic reflectivity of the large metallic structures can interfere with radar systems in their vicinity, cluttering displays, creating the potential for deadly open-seas collisions, and even interfering with maritime search and rescue operations near offshore wind facilities.
- Turbine heights and radar interference also threaten to disrupt military Air Traffic Control and Fire Control radars, limit local air combat training and supersonic flights, and create a significant vulnerability around the Port of Wilmington.
The unique problem of hurricanes
- Research has estimated that nearly half the turbines in a wind farm placed in the most vulnerable areas would face destruction from hurricanes within a 20-year period.
- The waters off North Carolina are frequently revisited by hurricanes, the greatest frequencies along the Atlantic Coast rivaled only by the southern tip of Florida.
“Forever waste” from retired and damaged turbine blades
- Retired or damaged turbine blades are already a significant and growing environmental waste problem. The blades are unrecyclable and unrepurposable “forever waste” that require either hauling away to landfills or burning in kilns. Current landfill space is quickly being exhausted.
- Not only has the bulk of blade retirements not yet occurred, but adding 8 GW of offshore wind production would obviously require large arrays of turbines and with them, the near-future, sizable increase to this already significant waste problem.
Lessons and questions from other offshore wind operations
- At the nation’s first offshore wind farm, the Block Island Wind Farm off Rhode Island, stress lines in four of five turbines have already caused lengthy shutdowns. Block Island has also had an ongoing problem of undersea cables being exposed owing to the current, possibly endangering nearby underwater species and also costing electricity consumers via passthrough surcharges to pay for reconstruction.
- Damages to rotors and turbine blades can lead to “no-sail zones” forbidding all maritime traffic (including commercial fishing) around not only the affected facilities but also similar facilities elsewhere.
- Offshore wind projects can attract strident opposition in the courts from affected communities, ratepayers, interest groups, conservationists, and even environmental advocates. The Vineyard Wind project currently faces five lawsuits. Affected North Carolina communities have already signaled willingness to seek redress with the courts depending on BOEM’s choices.
- Dominion Energy’s Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind (CVOW) pilot project, completed in September 2020, is intended as a research project for gathering information about offshore wind facilities in the U.S., including turbine installation and operation, power output, hurricane resilience, operating and maintenance costs, supply chain issues, effects of close placement of turbines, and environmental effects. Over time it could yield important information for North Carolina policymakers.
Summary and Recommendations
For all those reasons and more, North Carolinians need their elected officials to give this issue sober consideration.
Study, watch, and wait
- The General Assembly should call for a study to give full consideration of the issues raised here, and the governor should support this good-faith effort. It would include collecting information and data on the experiences with Block Island and the CVOW pilot project, listening to coastal communities’ concerns, and giving researchers time to undertake more comprehensive studies of potentially affected marine ecologies, habitats, and creatures, and making careful study of the potential impact of hurricanes.
Consider fully the tradeoffs involved and vigorously protect electricity consumers
- Policymakers should give careful consideration to the tradeoffs between energy-based emissions and energy costs as well as the tradeoffs between energy costs and people’s quality of life. See if there are more optimal ways to balance those considerations. The legislature, the Public Staff of the Utilities Commission, and the courts should also vigorously defend consumer protections built into state law.
Without those steps, the proposition before North Carolina policymakers is essentially this: to jack up electricity rates on everyone, create subsequent price increases on everything because of the pervasive effect of electricity rate hikes, cause people to spend an exorbitant amount of money throughout the coming years paying for these facilities, inflict some unknown amount of harm to coastal communities’ fishing and tourism, disrupt sensitive underwater habitats, kill an uncountable number of birds, disrupt vessel navigation as well as search and rescue operations, introduce more intermittency and unreliability on electrical grids, and all to put the most expensive form of electricity generation with enormous towers and unrecyclable wind blades into the nation’s most hurricane-prone waters and say it’s to reduce North Carolina’s climate emissions, create jobs, and grow the economy — ongoing achievements North Carolinians have already been enjoying without it.