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Bush Administration Aims to Tap into Ocean's Wind Power

Nov 5, 2007 - Lesley Clark and John Murawski - The News & Observer

A year after a bitter congressional fight over offshore drilling for oil and gas, the Bush administration now wants to tap the ocean's winds, waves and currents as a source for alternative energy.

The plans could mean that within a few years, towering wind turbines could start spinning off North Carolina's Outer Banks to harness the same gusts that have tossed ships out there for centuries.

U.S. Secretary of Interior Dirk Kempthorne said Monday that the 1.8 billion acres of the federal Outer Continental Shelf could become "a new frontier" for the nation's energy resources.

His remarks come a year after Congress argued over whether to open up much of the nation's federal waters to drilling for oil or gas. Those proposals, ultimately shot down, brought strong opposition from environmental groups and some state governments.

But now the administration has found some common ground with environmental groups in the push for wind- and water-generated energy.

"We wouldn't give blanket approval for these things, but the bar would have to be high for us to reject it," said Josh Dorner, a spokesman for the Sierra Club in Washington. "There's a lot of wind offshore. Finding ways to tap that would be excellent." The federal government is entertaining bids beginning this week for companies to put testing equipment, such as meteorological towers, in the ocean waters to gather data on wind, wave or current energy.

Kempthorne said the agency is farthest along in understanding how to capture wind energy, which also has the greatest potential impact on North Carolina.

The U.S Department of Interior, which governs federal lands, figures 70 percent of the ocean's wind power could be found in the Mid-Atlantic states in waters less than 60 meters deep.

From Delaware to North Carolina, experts think they can harness enough of the south and southwesterly prevailing winds to supply energy for 50 million homes.

The sight of rows of spinning wind turbines has become a common one in flat, blustery locales such as Oklahoma and parts of California. If the Interior's plan comes to fruition, such a sight could be seen offshore as well.

"Wind is a lot steadier and stronger offshore," Dorner said. "You can put some really massive turbines out there."

Federal waters of the Outer Continental Shelf begin at three miles offshore and run to 200 nautical miles, and placement of wind turbines would depend on a variety of factors, including wind resources and environmental impacts.

National park and historical sites would be off-limits, as would some fisheries.

It's unclear, though, how much say individual states would have on the placement of offshore energy facilities in federal waters.

Chris Canfield, executive director of Audubon North Carolina, said the group supports wind energy but would have to review each offshore commercial facility on a site-by-site basis.

The state's coastline is a popular track for migratory birds, he said, and several endangered species feed in the waters off Cape Hatteras.

Still, he said, the average wind turbine only kills two or three birds a year. A more possible scenario, he said, might occur if residents worried about the sight of turbines use bird strikes as the reason for their opposition.

"Overall, I think it's going to be people reacting to what it looks like to have wind turbines, and they'll try to use birds to make their case," Canfield said.

Other parts of the country have other potential.

Farther south, the agency says most of the potential for sub-surface current energy can be found in the Gulf Stream flowing northward off Florida's east coast. There, capturing just one-thousandth of the Gulf Stream's energy could supply a third of the Sunshine State's energy, Kempthorne said.

And wave energy has the most potential on the Pacific Coast, between Washington and northern California, said Interior officials Monday.

If just 15 percent of the nation's wave energy were harvested, Kempthorne said, 22 million homes could be supplied with energy.

Many local utilities already have been searching for alternative energy sources.

In North Carolina, Progress Energy and Duke Energy are preparing to tap renewables to make electricity, based on a new state law requiring electric utilities in the state to meet growing customer demand with electricity generated by alternative fuel sources. Progress last week said it has started shopping around for renewable electricity generated by independent suppliers.

The Raleigh-based electric utility is asking for proposals from suppliers of solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, wind, hydropower, geothermal, landfill methane gas, ocean current, hydrogen and wave energy, and biomass such as animal waste and switchgrass. However, the company is emphasizing solar power, poultry litter and swine waste because the new state law specifically requires those three renewable resources.


(McClatchy Newspapers correspondents Lesley Clark and John Murawski contributed to this report.) ___