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Offshore wind technology energizes South Carolina researchers

The Coastal Explorer will be used by Coastal Carolina University's project in conjunction with other universities to map portions of the ocean floor to determine the viability for wind turbine placement off the South Carolina coast.
The Coastal Explorer will be used by Coastal Carolina University's project in conjunction with other universities to map portions of the ocean floor to determine the viability for wind turbine placement off the South Carolina coast. Coastal Carolina University

Steady wind patterns from the Atlantic Ocean have long inspired hopes of wind turbines dotting the East Coast.

Now South Carolina and other Eastern states are exploring the idea with task forces and studies.

“Historically, we have not seen utility-scale wind development in this region yet,” said Brian O’Hara, president of the Southeastern Coastal Wind Coalition. “That’s changing pretty soon.”

Local universities are already becoming research leaders in the budding regional offshore wind farm industry, common in European waters but foreign to American.

“There are a lot of great universities within South Carolina that are really spurring some of the research in wind energy and the offshore environment,” said Brian Krevor, an environmental protection specialist with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the federal agency that regulates offshore energy development.

The unique environmental and geological features of the southeastern Atlantic Coast require accurate data and useful facilities much closer to home, said O’Hara, whose coalition pushes for offshore wind development from Florida to Virginia.

“There are a lot of lessons that can be learned from Europe, but there are some things that we need, some firsthand research and firsthand experience here,” he said.

Coastal Carolina University, the University of South Carolina and the College of Charleston are receiving some $1.5 million in federal and state grant money to research what areas wind developers should embrace or avoid off the coast.

“It’s really a true, collaborative effort between (the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management) and the state of South Carolina’s institutions,” said Rick DeVoe, executive director of the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium, which administers the project.

Paul Gayes, the director of CCU’s Center for Marine and Wetland Studies, said the project will use continuous geophysical mapping of certain portions of the ocean floor to help determine what wildlife habitats and cultural resources are just off the coast.

The project will use the Coastal Explorer, a 54-foot aluminum research vessel that CCU christened a year ago. Some of the scientists aboard will be looking at environmental conditions on the sea floor, like fishery habitats and sediment thickness, that could make an area unattractive to developers.

Others, including James Spirek with the South Carolina Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology at USC, will be looking to safeguard cultural artifacts. These include the ruins of shipwrecks and the prehistoric – now submerged – landscape that once held human settlements and that must remain undisturbed under federal historic preservation law.

“Our role is to try and make sure that those sights and shipwrecks are not impacted by” offshore energy development, said Spirek, who is the state underwater archaeologist.

He said the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management gives states more leeway on cultural resources management.

“States that border the Outer Continental Shelf will have oversight of these activities that will be going on that may impact cultural resources,” Spirek said.

Other USC departments, such as the Earth and Ocean Sciences and the Earth Sciences and Resources Institute, will also be represented on the outings off the coast. Gayes said they hope to be in the water by late November or early December. The project will last well into next year.

“A pretty big chunk of real estate is going to be covered,” Gayes said. “We’ll be at it for a while because it’s a huge area.”

South Carolina universities have invested in studying wind energy technology, even as the first offshore wind farms are far from being approved by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. For instance, the Clemson University Restoration Institute holds the drive-train testing facility, a large wind turbine testing center in North Charleston.

“The facility is strategically located to serve as a hub for new technology testing and development,” according to the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, an economic development partnership.

Clemson’s Strom Thurmond Institute has also played a role in assessing the economic potential for offshore wind energy, said Hamilton Davis, energy and climate director for the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League.

“They’ve also worked on a number of different studies related to economic development opportunities associated with developing offshore wind resources,” Davis said.

O’Hara said local schools have contributed overall to the body of research on offshore wind energy.

“Between the research they do and the role that they play in getting good unbiased information out, I think they play a really critical role in the industry,” he said.

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