Roanoke Island seen as site of 500-foot test turbine

By on February 9, 2011

Shipbuilding giant Northrop Grumman and a Spanish company are looking into erecting a test turbine on the Outer Banks as U.S. policy moves more aggressively toward offshore wind power.

Officials from Dare County, its towns and Currituck County were called to a recent meeting for a briefing on the possibility of a 500-foot-tall wind turbine being built for research at the planned University of North Carolina Coastal Studies Institute campus on Roanoke Island.

Plans also call for another prototype turbine a mile offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.

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The meeting was organized by North Carolina’s Northeast Commission, a regional industrial development agency, and included officials from Northrop Grumman, the shipbuilding and aerospace firm, Gamesa, a Spanish company that manufactures the massive wind turbines, and the state Department of Commerce.

Some details emerged at Monday’s meeting of the Dare County Board of Commissioners when County Manager Bobby Outten presented proposals for a wind energy facilities ordinance. Suggestions were aimed mostly at smaller residential turbines, but Outten said the board would need to consider how the county ordinance will address the possibility of an industrial-sized windmill on shore.

He said height restrictions would prohibit one now.

Outten told the commissioners that the proposal for the Coastal Studies Institute, which plans to build a campus in Skyco, envisioned a turbine 500 feet tall at the highest tip of one of the blades. The idea would be to build a windmill that could be easily accessed for research. It was billed as being remote enough not to intrude on populated areas.

The companies also discussed erecting a second windmill offshore. Kitty Hawk Mayor Pro Tem Gary Perry, who attended the meeting and is a member of a governor’s commission examining energy options, said it would be outside of federal waters and close enough to shore to minimize costs for transmission lines.

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“Of course my response, echoed by others at the meeting, was how would Dare citizens and tourists react to the windmill that close to shore,” Perry wrote in an e-mail. “We felt it could have a negative impact on the tourist industry. 

“To me a more serious consideration lay in the fact that once testing was completed, the windmill(s) would not be removed. There was no provision for future maintenance, repair or replacement.  Put it up, do the testing and walk away.”

Ray White, vice president for marketing with North Carolina’s Northeast, said the companies have put the offshore prototype on a back burner. He also said the company has offered assurances that if a turbine were built at CSI, it would be dismantled and removed after its useful life.

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White said that North Carolina is competing with other Mid-Atlantic states as the location for a prototype turbine. The companies, he said, want to move quickly to get permitting in place and start work by the fourth quarter of 2012.

Northrop Grumman and Gamesa are moving to the forefront of technology coinciding with this week’s announcement by the Obama Administration that offshore leases for wind farms could be made available off the mid-Atlantic coast.

On Thursday, a ribbon cutting for the Gamesa North American Offshore Wind Technology Center in the Greenbrier area of Chesapeake included Gov. Bob McDonnell as well as local government and corporate officials.

Officials were told at the North Carolina meeting that Northrop Grumman is getting into the wind turbine business for two main reasons. As a shipbuilder, its expertise is in large machinery and the offshore environment. It could also create a new market for its shipbuilding arm, which now relies heavily on defense contracts. The company owns what was once known as Newport News Shipbuilding.

Perry said that building a wind farm 20 miles off the East Coast would need specialized ships that would be American-built and manned by U.S. personnel. Northrop Grumman’s involvement would provide a U.S. component for supporting the turbines. The two test prototypes are being built by Gamesa Technology Corp., a U.S. subsidiary of the Spanish company.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced in Norfolk earlier this week that the U.S. could begin leasing wind farm sites off the mid-Atlantic as far south as Virginia by the end of the year. They also said that the federal government would spend $50.5 million over the next five years for research and development of offshore wind energy.

The U.S. Department of Energy has set a goal of wind producing 20 percent of the nation’s power by 2030.

In a statement after the announcement, Gov. Bev Perdue said she wants “North Carolina to be the first state on the East Coast using offshore windmills to generate energy. 

“Our state has first-class wind resources and the largest offshore wind on the East Coast, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.  Developing just some of these resources could be an economic boon to the state in the years ahead.”

At Monday’s meeting, Commissioner Mike Johnson said that it was Dare County’s job to look after the interests of residents and property owners, not to facilitate new business for Northrop Grumman.

“We don’t base our decisions on how we can help them,” Johnson said.

But Commissioner Richard Johnson said that Dare County was known for firsts, most notably the first powered flight. He said wind turbine testing would enhance the county’s reputation in education and research if the project moves forward.

“Once again Dare County will be on the map as one of the leaders in this type of technology,” he said.

Last year, plans by Duke Energy to build up to three test turbines in the Pamlico Sound were abandoned.

U.S. Department of Energy photo.

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