Atlantic Wind’s Quiet Year

Hurricane season passed uneventfully this year on the Outer Banks, the sandy reefs that curl into the Atlantic off North Carolina, barely jutting above the ocean’s surface. A storm named Earl wobbled through in early September, heralded by rings of concentric clouds that stretched over us on a bright afternoon. Earl was a weakling, a mere Category One storm, so even when he dumped what seemed like endless amounts of rain we were able to yawn, turn over, and go back to sleep. Other storms whizzed by offshore, signaling their presence with towering waves but no gales. The high surf was our only clue.

Each year in June, Outer Banks residents wonder if it will be a year of bad storms, like 1999 (Dennis, Floyd, and Irene) or 2003 (Isabel). As it turns out, 2010 will be remembered not by what happened, but by what didn’t. In late summer Duke Energy announced that it was abandoning its plans to build a pilot wind energy project in Pamlico Sound just inside Cape Hatteras. Spokesmen for the North Carolina-based utility said the project had simply become too expensive.

I mention hurricanes and wind energy together, because northeast North Carolina is among the most vulnerable landscapes in the world to sea level rise. In North America only the Everglades are more threatened by the brimming waters (although Louisiana is not far behind). The barrier islands that comprise Cape Hatteras are in a state of geologic collapse. Coastal scientists predict that as many as five inlets will be cut through them in the next few decades. On the mainland, corner posts that once marked property lines now stand in the middle of tidal creeks. We have a more than passing interest in global warming. And because the erosion caused by sea level rise is driven mostly by storms, we keep an extraordinarily close eye on the weather.

Duke Energy purportedly wanted to build an industrial-size wind farm in the ocean off Hatteras, near where oil companies once hoped to drill for natural gas. A groundswell of opposition kept the oil and gas rigs out of our ocean wilderness. Wind energy is far preferable to petrochemical production. But like many of my neighbors, I was deeply ambivalent about the prospects of an industrial operation being built offshore.

I love the idea of using electricity generated by wind. But can’t we also work aggressively toward energy efficiency? And can’t we try producing wind and solar power on a smaller, decentralized scale?

The New York Times reports that an ancient village in remote Italy has installed four turbines that generate more electricity than locally needed. The excess power is sold into the grid, producing income for the local government. Other community wind turbines stand on the northwest coast of Nova Scotia and in Hull, Massachusetts, just off Boston Harbor. But North Carolina’s regulations aren’t friendly to community wind power, or, it seems, to any kind of wind power.

When they pulled out of the Hatteras project, Duke Energy officials said they planned to concentrate on establishing wind farms in Colorado and New Jersey, where the regulations are more favorable. Maybe that’s not a bad thing for us. Large utilities tend to view community wind and other decentralized renewable energy projects as a threat. With the utilities’ attention turned elsewhere, perhaps we can convince regulators here to give community wind a try. It will be an uphill fight, there’s no doubt―but Duke Energy’s abandonment of us may provide an opening that otherwise would have stayed firmly shut.

Jan DeBlieu has written four books and dozens of essays about people and place from her vantage on the North Carolina Outer Banks.

Photo by Erik Hoffner.