Wind project off North Carolina coast gets overwhelming support

By Elizabeth Ouzts, Energy News Network

Birders and organized labor dominated a recent public comment period, while beach towns were mostly mum. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will now consider the input ahead of an anticipated auction this spring.

Though a spate of southeast North Carolina beach communities last year passed resolutions against ocean wind turbines that could be seen from shore, the formal letters just submitted to the federal government about the prospect were overwhelmingly — and surprisingly — positive.

In a feedback period that closed last month, only Bald Head Island weighed in with the Biden administration about its plans to allow wind turbines about 18 miles from the Brunswick County coast, where they would appear as tiny specks on the horizon.

The rest of the public comments were dominated by conservationists, who view the climate crisis as an existential risk to birds and other wildlife, and representatives of organized labor, who see an unprecedented opportunity for new union jobs in turbine manufacturing and construction.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will now review the input and issue a final sale notice for a 200-square-mile patch of ocean called Wilmington East, with an auction anticipated this spring. But the ocean wind farm itself is still years away, with most of its details still undetermined.

“We do think that the current Wilmington East area is a preferred location for a wind project,” said Greg Andeck, government relations director for Audubon North Carolina. “But there’s still a lot more work that needs to be done before the project has steel in the ground.”

‘We need responsible offshore wind’ 

To be sure, Bald Head Island wasn’t alone in lodging formal concern about wind turbines visible from the shore. A fishing boat captain and realtor called the structures “visual pollution” and “monstrosities.” Another commenter pleaded: “As a property owner and a senior citizen, I beg you not to place windmills within naked eyesight of our coastline.”

During a comment session that closed in September, Caswell Beach also weighed in, hinting that the turbines could be placed beyond the horizon as they will be in the Kitty Hawk wind energy area off the Outer Banks coast. 

But during both feedback sessions, Audubon members were the most numerous voices by far, making up more than 600 of the 667 letters received in December and 800 of 814 comments received in September. 

“We saw over 1500 petition signatures through two different comment periods with virtually no negative feedback,” Andeck said. “That’s surprising for folks, seeing that there’s such broad support from birders.” 

Undeniably, wind turbines can and do kill birds, often undetected. Some studies suggest land-based wind farms in the United States could cause over a million bird deaths a year — a figure sure to increase as wind power ramps up. 

But unchecked global warming poses an exponentially greater danger. If temperatures rise 3 degrees Celsius by century’s end — as they’re now on pace to do — scientists predict the areas where birds can breed, nest, and forage would shrink dramatically. Two-thirds of all bird species in North America could face extinction. 

“Fundamentally our members know that climate change is now the biggest threat to birds,” Andeck said, “and that we need responsible offshore wind to respond to this threat.” 

For Audubon, “responsible” is the key word, encompassing everything from siting decisions that avoid migration routes to technology choices that limit bird impact.

The northern gannet — a snow-white seabird known for nabbing its ocean prey with a torpedo-style plunge — helps illustrate the point. Scientists believe the gannet’s nesting and feeding grounds off the coast of Canada will shrink nearly 70% if the planet continues warming apace, a contraction that may be impossible to survive.

But the southern Atlantic Ocean is also along the gannet’s migration route. How might global warming alter its annual trek? How would it respond to hundreds of turbines in its path? How will the menhaden and other fish the gannet eats fair? 

The Wilmington East area was selected in part because it should pose limited interference to wildlife. But Audubon and other conservationists are still pressing officials to require developers to use cutting-edge equipment to further reduce risk, such as sensors that can turn off blades when bird flocks are nearby.

“Migratory marine birds like Northern Gannet and trans-Atlantic migrants like Whimbrel rely on our responsible stewardship to ensure their populations remain resilient as we transition to a clean energy future,” the Audubon petition reads.

If the federal government requires wind developers to monitor and reduce bird impacts upfront, it concludes, “we can provide offshore wind energy companies the certainty they need to grow this industry in North Carolina, and at the same time protect birds and the places they need today and tomorrow.”

‘A big push on our part’

After Audubon, the labor movement made up the next biggest chunk of comments into the federal government, the result of a concerted effort by the state AFL-CIO and the North Carolina Climate and Jobs Roundtable, a coalition of labor, justice and environmental groups.

“This was a big push on our part because offshore wind is such a big priority of many of our affiliates,” said Aiden Graham, campaign manager and field director for the North Carolina AFL-CIO.

The enormous towers, blades and other specialized parts that make up offshore wind farms are now made in Europe. But from ironworkers to electrical workers to the building trades, there’s wide resolve to develop a U.S. supply chain to support the some 5,000 turbines set to be planted off the East Coast in the next decade.

“We don’t have the domestic workforce that we really need, nor do we have the domestic supply chain that we really need,” Graham said. “It’s a major priority of the labor movement to build out that supply chain and to build the workforce that can do that work domestically.” 

report issued last month by the Southeastern Wind Coalition and E2 projected a theoretical 2.8-gigawatt project built off North Carolina’s coast by 2030 — in line with goals set by Gov. Roy Cooper last year — could bring $4.6 billion in economic benefits, including up to 31,000 direct and indirect jobs. 

Federal officials estimate Wilmington East will have at least 1.5 gigawatts of capacity, enough to power more than half a million homes. Whatever jobs the project ultimately spurs, organized labor is pushing for them to be local, union accessible, and responsive to the needs of historically marginalized communities.

Commenters praised the Biden administration for proposing that the wind developer who leases the area “make every reasonable effort” to enter into project labor agreements for the construction phase. 

“The project is an opportunity to help diversify our energy sources for families in North Carolina and bring middle-class jobs to the region,” wrote Dan Segovia, business manager for Ironworkers Local 848. “With a well-trained workforce, our partners in North Carolina can count on efficient and timely construction of any new energy development.” 

Project labor agreements serve to standardize work rules, safety agreements, and workforce training, the state AFL-CIO wrote in its comments, and establish clear and speedy channels for communication, coordination, and dispute resolutions. 

In Rhode Island, where the nation’s first commercial offshore wind project was built, Deepwater Wind’s project labor agreement with that state’s building and construction trade council “ensured the cost, schedule and time certainty challenges of our project were met,” then-CEO Jeffrey Grybowski wrote in a letter submitted to the Biden administration. Moreover, he said, “it was essential to having our project completely safely and within budget.”

Federal officials are also toying with “multi-factor” bidding, in which developers bidding for the patch of ocean offer not just money but also commitments to train workers and use domestically produced supplies. Union organizers applaud the idea, so long as it is used in conjunction with, not instead of, project labor agreements.

“Bidding criteria should be employed to advance community benefits, environmental justice principles, and high labor standards,” wrote the North Carolina Climate and Jobs Roundtable. 

A 2013 state law prevents state or local governments from requiring project labor agreements, but the Biden administration can impose whatever standards it chooses for projects constructed in federal waters. And since the Wilmington East area is equidistant to South Carolina, another state with anti-union laws, labor organizers hope the federal government will use its influence to prevent a “race to the bottom” for cheap labor.

“In a state like North Carolina,” Graham said, “we have more leverage at the federal level than we do at the state level.” 

To be sure, there is precedent for both the Biden administration and the wind developers to meet the demands of organized labor. But most of the activity to date has been in the more union-friendly Northeast, not in this right-to-work region where workers can be represented by unions without paying dues. 

“Whenever there is a reference to offshore wind from the federal government, there is a reference to well paying, organized labor jobs,” said Jaime Simmons, program manager with the Southeastern Wind Coalition. “The industry has done a really stellar job at ensuring that project labor agreements are utilized at different phases of development.”

“All that said,” she added, “North Carolina is a right-to-work state, so it’s tough to see how those dynamics will play out.” 

‘Raising these issues early’ 

Another question looming over the coastal wind farm: How many companies will build it? The Southeastern Wind Coalition and some wind developers believe dividing the area into two equal parcels and leasing it to two different companies will create the most competition, bringing costs down.

That way, said Simmons, “there is more of an effort to sharpen your pencils to demonstrate that this is being done as cost-effectively as possible.” 

The state’s dominant utility, Duke Energy, takes the opposite view, arguing that keeping the area with one lessee will provide more flexibility for it to respond to concerns about environmental impact and the visibility of the turbines from the shore. (Not mentioned in the company’s letter are the company’s shareholders, which stand to benefit from less competition.) 

Whatever parameters the Biden administration places on the lease sale, the offshore wind project is still in its very early stages, and there will be more public input before wind turbines start spinning off the state’s southeastern coast. But both conservationists and union interests stress that their involvement in the process now is critical.

“We’re raising these issues early and as soon as possible so there’s not a surprise for developers about how we would like our offshore wind industry to develop,” said Audubon’s Andeck.