Is the future of the state's electric power blowing in the wind?

October 12, 2008 

  • Wind energy is a form of solar energy. Winds are caused by the uneven heating of the atmosphere by the sun, the irregularities of the Earth's surface and the rotation of the Earth. Wind energy or wind power describes the process by which the wind is used to generate mechanical power or electricity. Wind turbines convert the kinetic energy in wind into mechanical power, which can then be converted into electricity.

Five years from now, 210-foot-tall wind turbines could be spinning off South Carolina's coast, generating electric power.

That's the prediction from the S.C. Energy Office, which was recently awarded a $500,000, three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to study the potential for generating wind energy off the coast. Clemson and Coastal Carolina universities and the Savannah River National Lab are also participating in the research.

"The purpose of this (grant) is to develop all the necessary regulations and get a better feel for what's available (in wind resources offshore)," said Erika Hartwig of the state energy office.

EXAMINING THE RESOURCES

The state hopes to build an 80-megawatt wind farm of between 12 and 15 turbines about 3 miles offshore. On a clear day, the turbines would be faintly visible from the beach, Hartwig said.

One megawatt of wind power can produce enough electricity to serve 250 to 300 homes on average each day, according to the DOE.

The pilot project could serve between 20,000 and 24,000 homes.

It would be paid for by utility companies interested in using the power that's generated, Hartwig said. The wind farm location would be determined from studies now under way, but the most likely sites would be between Charleston and North Carolina, Hartwig said.

"The wind field drops offshore as you go south," said Paul Gayes, director of the Burroughs and Chapin Center for Marine and Wetland Studies at Coastal Carolina. "Here at the Grand Strand and on Hilton Head (Island), there is a large demand for power right along the coast. ... (However) wind energy is not as viable (off Hilton Head)."

The farther off from shore the turbines move, the more expensive wind energy becomes.

In addition to potentially harnessing the wind, the grant provides money to study other possible energy sources, including tidal flows and wave currents, Gayes said.

"There are very strong tides in Hilton Head where turbines driven by tidal flow are feasible," he said. "Part of this overall cooperative is looking at how to integrate all the resources that are out there."

THE TOOLS

Ralph Nichols, an engineer at the Savannah River National Lab, said the best way to measure the potential of coastal wind, wave and tidal energy is to use data-collecting technologies.

Buoys, for instance, can measure wave speed, height and temperature.

A 6-foot cube-like box called a sodar can measure wind speed and direction. The box can be placed atop buildings onshore or on platforms in the ocean and measure wind data up to 600 feet high, Nichols said.

Aside from assessing the resources, Nichols said, the study will also:

• Identify the needs and barriers of integrating offshore wind energy into the power grid.

• Identify technology that can transfer the power to the shore.

• Establish a state task force to determine the economic and environmental effects of wind energy and create a permitting process for wind farms in state waters.

THE BENEFITS

Off the coast of South Carolina, winds are estimated to blow between 15 and 16 miles per hour, fast enough to power a wind farm, Nichols said.

"The power you can get out of wind is very strongly related to" wind speed, he said. "If you double the wind speed, you can increase your amount of power by eight times (based on current modeling)."

Nichols said wind power could help decrease the Palmetto State's dependence on other states for energy and boost local economies.

"Wind by itself won't power the whole state, but it can certainly help," he said.

"And, in some of our most congested places, the population ... is expected to grow 20 to 30 percent in the next 30 years. It's hard to get nuclear and coal-powered plants permitted, much less built. So I hope (wind is) one way we can meet the increasing demand."

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