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Written on the wind: Forum sees large economic impacts from wind farms off the state's coast

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Building a wind farm off the South Carolina coast would have huge environmental benefits, but it’s another kind of green that was the main focus of a wind energy forum in Georgetown this week.

Discussion centered mostly around the significant economic impact that could result if the state becomes a national leader in generating offshore wind energy. It’s a market that could be worth as much as $12 billion, according to a 2007 Clemson University study available through the S.C. Energy Office.

“Once you start a wind farm, it will create jobs,” said Al Reid, plant manager for PPG Industries Fiber Glass Products in Chester.

He was part of a six-member panel that fielded questions at the forum, which drew about 20 people. Reid said PPG is already reaping the benefits of wind energy. The fiberglass it produces is woven into a fabric used to make blades for wind turbines used in European wind farms.

Another panel member, Tim Tilley, said his company in Georgetown, EnviroSep, manufactures cooling systems used in turbines to keep the interior electronics from overheating.

The wind industry accounts for a “negligible” part of the company’s business now, but Tilley estimates it could reach 10 percent in the next year or two.

“We want people to understand that manufacturing jobs associated with wind energy already exist in South Carolina,” Reid said.

That stands to increase substantially if South Carolina can break into the wind industry.

The effects of opening an offshore wind-generating facility were compared to those created by a Boeing assembly plant that started up recently in North Charleston. The facility itself would create jobs, but people would also be put to work as companies that supply parts for turbines set up shop nearby.

As many as 20 jobs for every megawatt of energy produced could be directly created by a generating facility, according to one study, said Elizabeth Kress, a principal engineer with Santee Cooper. The state-owned utility is the leader in research concerning South Carolina’s potential for offshore wind generation.

Thousands of temporary jobs would also be created during the construction phase, panel members said.

“A little over 10 percent of our work force is unemployed right now, so we’re interested in any industry that can bring jobs to our area,” said event moderator Sarah Luadzers, who is business development manager for Georgetown County Economic Development.

There is also the potential for eco-tourism.

However, the benefits of wind energy wouldn’t come cheap, Kress said, and that’s one of the biggest challenges the state will face in entering the offshore wind market.

Significant costs are attached to feasibility studies.

Additionally, offshore wind energy costs 12 to 16 cents per kilowatt hour to produce. That’s about twice as much as traditional electricity production costs.

There are also costs for permitting, transmission of electricity back to shore, environmental studies and back-up generation facilities that will be activated if the wind dies suddenly and turbines can’t generate energy.

However, with a wind farm, the state could cut back on the billions it spends annually on coal for energy production, said Toni Reale of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

“Once the turbines are erected, fuel is free,” she said. “It would diversify energy supply and provide energy security for the state.”

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