Blowing in the wind

The answer to South Carolina’s quest for renewable energy might be blowing in the wind — about a dozen miles off the coast.

The University of South Carolina’s Earth Sciences and Resources Institute (ESRI-SC) is partnering in a study of potential sites for offshore wind turbines that could generate as much as 19.2 gigawatts of electricity. That’s about two-thirds of the state’s current electric generation capacity and enough to power nearly 6 million homes.

Offshore winds are stronger and more consistent than land winds, and they average about 18 miles per hour off of the S.C. coast,” said ESRI-SC director and earth and ocean sciences professor Camelia Knapp. “That’s relatively high compared to much of the U.S. coastline.”

The three-year, $750,000 project, funded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, will not only identify suitable geologic sites for anchored wind turbines but also try to locate cultural artifacts such as shipwrecks, hazardous artifacts such as unexploded military ordnance and submerged prehistoric sites.

Coastal Carolina University is gathering data of the ocean floor, and ESRI-SC will process and interpret it. UofSC’s Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences and the S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology are also participating in the study. Sea Grant Consortium is acting as the project liaison, and the S.C. Energy Office is providing support.

“We’re looking at the sites to ascertain whether there is hard ground, soft ground, slopes and sand channels, fractures and faults, active zones of sediment transfer,” Knapp said. “Based on the results of the first year, we’ll zoom in on areas of interest to identify the most viable sites.”

The federal government has funded two similar studies for the North Carolina and Maryland coasts. Characterizing potential sites for offshore wind turbines is the first step in what would likely be a lengthy process for actual installation of electricity generating equipment.

Carolina and ESRI-SC are collaborating with Clemson University, Coastal Carolina University, Furman University and several other colleges across the state, as well as Savannah River National Lab, to create a statewide energy consortium called ACCES — Atlantic Coast Center for Energy Sustainability. Though as yet unfunded, the center would tap into the collective expertise of member institutions’ faculty to look at alternative and renewable energy, conventional hydrocarbon and environmental hazards that are byproducts of all forms of energy generation.

“The Obama administration has lifted the ban on mid-Atlantic exploration for oil and gas, and we know from previous studies that the offshore geology here is suitable for finding methane hydrates, natural gas and perhaps oil,” Knapp said. “It’s possible that we might one day have offshore hydrocarbon and offshore wind energy production off of the S.C. coast for economic growth and job opportunities.”

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