Europe has more than 1,500 offshore wind turbines and produces enough power from offshore wind to power 4 million homes. A further 13 new offshore wind farms are under construction and more are in various planning stages.
Across the Atlantic, more than 40,000 people work in the offshore wind industry and it is estimated that more than 290,000 people will be employed by offshore wind in Europe by 2030. China is getting into the act too. They completed their first wind farm last year, supplying power to over 200,000 people, and are getting ready to build another one.
Meanwhile, the United States does not have one working offshore wind turbine despite the fact that we have some of the best wind resources in the world, especially off the Atlantic Coast. Right off the shore of South Carolina, we have tremendous offshore wind energy generation potential that could power our homes and businesses with locally produced clean energy.
Despite our slow start, the development of offshore wind is finally beginning to take off along the Atlantic Seaboard, but our state General Assembly needs to show more support and show the industry that this is a priority in South Carolina. Start-up costs can be high in this new industry, and investors need to be assured that they have the support of the state and federal government and that the rules are not going to change during planning and construction.
Our leaders could pass incentives for offshore wind energy. They could ask our congressmen to work on improving the permitting process for offshore wind farms. The current permitting process takes years, longer than for gas exploration and drilling. If the relevant permitting agencies could do some pre-planning off our coast, like is apparently happening in the northeast, then we could identify areas off limits to wind development and areas where it would be more appropriate.
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A prime example of the types of issues that hinder offshore wind development is the recent history of the federal tax credit. This was set to expire but was saved at the last minute by the “cliff deal” worked out by congress. Unfortunately this tax credit was only extended for only one year. The threat that this credit would expire forced wind turbine manufacturers to lay off workers and the short horizon for the extension puts a serious drag on future planning. This is something our congressional members need to address. Having these tax credits come and go over short time frames makes it very difficult to plan long term on these expensive complicated projects.
Of course offshore wind energy development does raise some legitimate concerns. One important issue is the potential impact to wildlife. There have been several studies on wind farms and wildlife in Europe over the past 10 years and no significant impacts have been found. This indicates that impacts to wildlife should be minimal if we are careful in how and where they are sited.
And we have to remember that wildlife is already being impacted by existing energy production. The natural world is currently suffering from mercury pollution, habitat destruction, chronic oil spills, hydraulic fracking, and a number of other disruptive activities associated with mining, drilling, refining, and burning of fossil fuels. We should not hold wind energy to a higher standard than we hold the coal, gas, and oil producers. Studies show that wind energy is safer for wildlife than these fossil fuel sources.
The National Wildlife Federation has issued a report titled “The Turning Point for Offshore Wind Energy: Time for Action to Create Jobs, Reduce Pollution, Protect Wildlife, and Secure America’s Energy Future.” This report can be found on the NWF webpage and explains the importance and the obstacles to offshore wind development. We are going to need to ramp up our use of alternative energy and offshore wind energy promises to be one of the best choices for South Carolina.
Steve Moore is special projects manager of the S.C. Wildlife Federation based on Johns Island. 843-559-1999 and scwf.org