Santee Cooper finds ‘significant electric power’ in S.C.’s offshore winds

Charleston Post and Courier
Bo Peterson
October 20, 2010

Enough wind blows off the South Carolina coast to supply significant electric power at least part time. That’s what a year-long study found.

The electricity the winds could generate would be enough to power 1 million homes or more, so long as they’re blowing.

A wind turbine farm could generate 1 to 5 gigawatts of electricity, said Elizabeth Kress, Santee Cooper renewable energy director. Not full time, she said, “but it’s still a lot of energy out there.” According to Savannah River National Lab, 3 1/2 gigawatts would power 1.75 million homes.

The next step is to build a demonstration wind turbine to prove it, said Paul Gayes, Center for Marine and Wetlands Study director at Coastal Carolina University.

Kress and Gayes were part of a seven-member panel that held an educational wind-energy forum Tuesday in North Charleston. They represented a consortium of energy, academic and industry groups, and state and local officials.

Gayes spoke before the forum.

The panel members made presentations and answered questions from about 70 people in the audience. The forum was one of a series being put on by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy with a federal grant.

It was the first held by the consortium led by Santee Cooper, the Moncks Corner-based utility. S.C. Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, moderated the session.

The consortium is exploring the feasibility of building 40 wind turbines off the coast. The effort is driven by an announced Santee Cooper goal of producing 40 percent of its electricity in the next 10 years from non-carbon fuel sources.

The quasi-state utility generates much of its power from coal-burning plants. The forum was held at the completion of the yearlong wind study at six buoys in the ocean from 1 1/2 miles to 12 miles off Myrtle Beach and Georgetown.

It came a week before Clemson University breaks ground Oct. 28 on a $100 million wind-turbine test lab at the former Charleston Navy base.

A demonstration wind turbine, like a lot of the emerging wind technology, is expensive.

“Someday shortly we’re likely to see the question (of developing wind energy) to come before the public, and we want the public to be informed and knowledgeable as possible,” Gayes said.

Whether it’s cost-effective to build and operate an offshore wind farm depends on how strong the winds are and how far off the coast they’re found.

The industry rule of thumb about wind technology is that it takes at least sustained 14 mph winds to make a wind farm productive with today’s technology. From there, each mile per hour counts. For instance, 16 mph winds will produce 50 percent more electricity than 14 mph winds.

During a Tuesday afternoon check of the six study sites, wind was blowing at about 9 mph.

Offshore winds in the Southeast have been considered marginal; the farther south, the lighter the winds. But a Georgia study in 2007 found sustained 16 mph winds about five miles off the coast.

A recent study by Oceana, an environmental group focused on the ocean, suggested that South Carolina could eventually generate 64 percent of its energy needs with offshore wind turbines.

The report suggested East Coast winds could potentially deliver 30 percent more electricity than recoverable natural gas and oil in the region.

The S.C. consortium’s wind study has focused on the Grand Strand because stronger winds are found closer to the coast there.

A federal push is under way to develop non-carbon energy sources and the consortium is one of any number of groups in coastal states hoping to capitalize on grant funding for projects, potential business developments and jobs in the emerging industry.

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