Wind Power Gains Momentum as a Viable Energy Alternative

Charleston District Regulatory Division
Published July 11, 2011
Wind turbines working in a field in Michigan. Wind power is being investigated as a sustainable resource in South Carolina.

Wind turbines working in a field in Michigan. Wind power is being investigated as a sustainable resource in South Carolina.

Delegates and stakeholders turn over orange sand to signify the groundbreaking of the new wind facility at Clemson University.

Delegates and stakeholders turn over orange sand to signify the groundbreaking of the new wind facility at Clemson University.

Wind turbines working in the ocean. Wind power is being investigated as a sustainable resource in South Carolina.

Wind turbines working in the ocean. Wind power is being investigated as a sustainable resource in South Carolina.

The development of alternative energy options is fast becoming a priority in the minds of many Americans and has emerged over the past several years as one of the nation’s great challenges. There is increasing awareness of climate change issues and the role of fossil fuels in contributing to accelerated atmospheric warming. Americans are equally frustrated by dependence on foreign oil and increasingly aspire to greater energy independence through the pioneering use of alternative energy strategies.


Wind energy has been used for centuries in many parts of the world to move sailing vessels, grind corn and grain, pump water and accomplish a host of other labor-intensive tasks. As industry and government look toward diversifying their energy generation portfolios, wind turbine technology promises to be a strong alternative. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is committed to energy efficiency at its own facilities as well as helping maximize the use of alternative and renewable energy options at Armed Forces and other government installations.


The Army is implementing an aggressive “net zero” program to appropriately manage its use and stewardship of natural resources in the areas of water, waste and energy. A net zero installation is one that combines the use of renewable energy and conservation practices to produce as much renewable energy as it uses during a given year. The Army is piloting five installations to be net zero by 2020, with a goal of 25 installations by 2030.


Many utility companies in coastal states are pursuing offshore wind power projects. Locations up to three miles offshore are considered state waters, while locations beyond the three-mile limit are considered federal waters. The Corps of Engineers has regulatory permit authority for both ocean areas; the Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1899 (Section 10) regulates activities in navigable waters and the Clean Water Act (Section 404) regulates the placement of dredge or fill material into any water of the United States. Since an offshore wind farm would involve transmission cables coming ashore to connect to the existing electrical grid, there could be impacts to onshore aquatic resources such as wetlands. Ultimately, a Department of the Army permit would be necessary for any offshore wind construction project. 


The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) would also play a role in the federal approval of such a project. NEPA requires any agency undertaking a federal action, such as a permit decision by the Corps of Engineers, to identify and disclose the expected environmental effects (positive and/or negative) of the proposed action. The documentation required by NEPA is prepared in an environmental assessment (EA) or an environmental impact statement (EIS) made available to the public and on which agency permit decisions can ultimately be based. For projects proposed in state waters, the Corps of Engineers will act as the “lead” federal agency to address the NEPA obligation and typically will invite other agencies to cooperate in the process. However, for projects proposed in federal waters, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) would have lead federal agency responsibility because of their role in granting leases for use of the necessary ocean space with the Corps acting  as a cooperating agency.


Perhaps the most publicized offshore wind farm proposal to date has been the Cape Wind Energy Project proposed in Nantucket Sound off the coast of Massachusetts. On January 5, 2011, the Corps’ New England District signed its record of decision to permit construction of 130 wind turbine generators capable of producing up to 454 MW. The permit decision marks the first Corps of Engineers permit for offshore wind power in the United States.


Further south where warmer ocean waters create strong seasonal storms, offshore wind farms have not been considered practical until recently. A newer breed of turbines, more capable of withstanding the higher-speed sustained winds and unpredictable gusts that can occur during hurricane season, has been developed and manufacturers continue to pursue more reliable and damage-resistant turbine designs.


Several states along the south Atlantic coast are evaluating the possibilities for wind power in their offshore waters.  For example, the South Carolina Energy Office received a U.S. Department of Energy grant in 2008 to explore the possibilities of offshore wind power. As part of this grant, a Regulatory Task Force for Coastal Clean Energy was formed and has been working since spring 2009 to evaluate the regulatory requirements that would face any proposal to install wind turbines in waters off the coast of South Carolina. The Task Force is comprised of numerous federal and state regulatory and natural resource agencies, including the Corps of Engineers, BOEM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, as well as numerous industry, academic and research institutions in the region.


While a fully-funded construction proposal for an offshore wind farm is not likely to be complete in the next year or two, other preparations are already occurring in South Carolina. One utility company recently erected a demonstration wind turbine in North Myrtle Beach on land and plans to construct a 90-meter-high meteorological platform offshore to gather wind speed, wind direction and other scientific data. The data gathered would be used prior to applying for a permit to construct a demonstration project of 20 turbines offshore near Georgetown. 


Another major step in support of offshore wind power broke ground on October 28, 2010, in North Charleston. Construction of the Clemson University Restoration Institute’s Large Wind Turbine Drivetrain Testing Facility is under way and will contribute to better understanding of how effectively current turbine designs withstand the forces of hurricane season storms in the South Atlantic Bight, the long bend of land from Cape Hatteras, NC to West Palm Beach, FL.


What about environmental impacts? To be sure, there will be impacts associated with any size offshore wind project because even the most necessary public benefit projects do have some level of impact. Certainly there are concerns regarding any effects during construction and operation to resident and migratory birds, whales and other marine mammals, as well as to sea turtles. 


There are other areas of concern as well. Will commercial fishing be allowed in the vicinity of a wind turbine array? How will areas used for dredging sand be affected? Thus, it may be necessary for states to identify and prioritize compatible and competing uses for the ocean space to be dedicated for use in wind farming. 


Clearly, there is a lot taking place to prepare for a future that includes making use of the inexhaustible wind resources off our coasts. The Corps of Engineers will be a major player in the federal approval process and, along with the entire spectrum of agency partners with whom we work, we are committed to facilitating the review of these projects to promote clean energy options that may ultimately help reduce the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil.