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On with the wind
Experts examine sites for turbine farms off Tybee coast
To even consider building wind turbines, the sea bottom must be less than 30 meters deep and free of natural reefs and artificial obstacles like shipwrecks.

Wind energy tends to generate excitement among the environmentally conscious and business–minded alike: It’s renewable, pollution–free and there’s plenty of it to sell. It seems awfully simple.

However, the process of figuring out where to build the giant turbines it takes to pull electricity from thin air is much more complex. And then there’s the matter of who’s going to pay for it.

At a public forum hosted by the Georgia Wind Working Group (GWWG) last Tuesday, wind energy experts broke down the basics of a proposed project off the coast of Georgia and led a handful of attendees through an analysis of optimal offshore locations.

When considering ideal depths, distance, intrusive items along the bottom and other factors for the site of an offshore wind farm, it appears that all those elements converge very close to home.

“If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen off the coast of Tybee,” said Mayor Jason Buelterman in his opening remarks at the forum, held at Tybee City Hall.

There’s always an “if” when a billion dollar project is on the table. A partnership between the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Georgia Tech’s Strategic Energy Institute and the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority, the GWWG has been working with Southern Co. to add offshore wind to the state’s energy coffers since 2005. The earliest estimated date for the opening of a “near–term” facility is 2024.

That means it’s going to be awhile before the Tybee breeze is turned into bright lights and blowing HVACs. But the community is ready for more green options like the energy upgrades and geothermal system installed in city buildings this year.

“It makes sense to begin outreach now as we work to wean ourselves from fossil fuels to more sustainable resources,” said councilmember Paul Wolff, who is also a member of the GWWG steering committee. “Wind is going to be a significant resource for Tybee and possibly the entire Eastern seaboard.”

Though wind power accounts for 2.3 percent of total energy use in the U.S., offshore facilities have yet to come online, putting us behind in the global clean energy arena. Simon Mahan, a representative from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, warned that Europe already has three gigawatts in the water and that Asia is a “rising giant.” China has ambitious plans to add to its 142 megawatt capabilities, and Japan is focusing on wind as it looks to phase out nuclear power, “for obvious reasons.”

The potential site off Tybee could generate a gigawatt of energy, enough to power as many as 750,000 homes using existing infrastructure.

“Georgia is a good resource; it’s close to large populations and the energy created will be easily accessible by those populations,” said Mahan, who went on to show the potential jobs created by offshore wind development as well as the stable long-term cost of wind, unlike the fluctuating prices of coal, oil and other fuels necessary to create electricity: “Wind will always be free.”

He also noted that unlike coal, natural gas and nuclear power, wind energy needs no water – a salient point to consider as groundwater resources are depleted.

Mahan defended the high cost of building offshore wind farms, which can be twice that of building on land due to the complications of building at sea, saying the return is made up with larger turbine capacity.

Building offshore also means no multi–party property ownership complexities; only state and federal governments can say who builds in U.S. waters. Offshore projects are in various stages of planning in Texas and the Northeast, most notably Cape Wind in Nantucket Sound, in Cape Cod, Mass.

So why Tybee as a prime possibility?

Geo–Marine Inc. Vice President of Environmental Resources and oceanographer Jason See began with an area in the ocean stretching from Georgia to North Carolina and narrowed down the options plot by plot.

See found only nine spots (27 square mile parcels referred to as “blocks”) in the hundreds of square miles that met the requirements to handle the pile structures that hold the giant wind turbines.

To even consider building, the bottom must be less than 30 meters deep and free of natural reefs and artificial obstacles like shipwrecks. Commercial fishing zones, shipping lanes and military training areas were off the map, and the critical habitats and migratory paths of right whales, sea turtles and birds were also out.

“There are so many stakeholders when it comes to offshore building,” explained See, who caused a titter in the room when he mentioned that unexploded ammunition on the sea floor was also taken into account. Apparently, the elusive “Tybee Bomb” buried somewhere out in Wassau Sound did not affect his research.

In order to test the viability of a wind farm off the Tybee Coast, Southern Co. leased the ocean plots determined via See’s work from the U.S. Dept. of the Interior last April. The money is there, but according to Southern Co. environmental specialist George Martin, “it’s like pushing a rock uphill” to collect the necessary data and meet the required regulations, as well as prove there’s enough wind to be economically viable.

“It’s folly to hypothesize what could be the capacity level and what the actual output levels will be,” said Martin during the forum’s Q&A session. “It’s just business.”

As Southern Co. continues to conduct research off Tybee, GWWG has other onshore wind projects in the works to keep the alternative energy at the forefront.

Though it may be decades before the turbines are built on the ocean horizon, the good news is that the wind isn’t going anywhere.