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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Oil Spill Emboldens Georgia Wind-Energy Advocates

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Last Wednesday, as the magnitude of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico grew starker, environmentalists were handed the perfect weapon to fight drilling off the Georgia coast.

Their clean-energy hopes were buoyed further by the Obama administration’s approval that same day of a massive wind-turbine farm off Massachusetts -- a welcome impetus for proposed wind-energy projects off Tybee and Jekyll islands.

“The political will for oil drilling is going to further erode,” Stephen Smith, executive director of the nonprofit Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, predicted this week. “And offshore wind in the Southeast is a tremendous resource. So we hope that Georgia doesn’t miss the opportunity simply because of a lack of foresight or a willingness to stick with the status quo.”

For now, though, the status quo rules. Georgia politicians, including Gov. Sonny Perdue, say the state should continue with plans to search for oil off the coast. And it will be years, if ever, before sunbathers and fishermen see windmills in the waters off Georgia.

“We need to find a balance between conservation, alternative energy and domestic production of oil,” Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said. “The oil spill is absolutely a tragedy. [But] the notion of shutting down any one energy source doesn’t make sense.”

President Barack Obama announced in late March that most of the Atlantic coastline would be opened for oil and natural gas “exploration, study and potential development.” It’s unknown how much oil sits off Georgia’s coast. Research done 25 years ago estimated that $4 billion in oil and natural gas lay at least 50 miles off the coasts of Georgia, South Carolina and northern Florida.

Seven exploration companies have applied for federal permits to determine how much oil and natural gas may lie off Georgia and in other coastal regions.

Obama, though, last week suspended any new drilling pending review by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

“What’s happening in the gulf should convince us that drilling for oil for any reason is the last thing we need to be doing,” said Paul Wolff, a Tybee Island city councilman and wind-energy enthusiast. “It would be insane to risk future generations, and the environment we now enjoy, for a potentially disastrous resource that is, ultimately, a finite resource anyway.”

Yet the oil-vs.-wind debate isn’t a zero-sum game. While more than 40 percent of U.S. energy comes from oil -- most of it imported -- very little of the nation’s electricity is generated by oil.

“We can get all the wind turbines, photovoltaic solar systems and nuclear power systems we want and it won’t save a barrel of oil,” said Sam Shelton, research program director at Georgia Tech’s Strategic Energy Institute. “We can’t use electricity to drive today’s transportation system. All energy is not created equal.”

The Southern Alliance’s Smith, though, argues that the gulf oil spill should lead politicians in Washington and Atlanta toward cleaner and less dangerous energy alternatives, such as ethanol and batteries to power vehicles.

“We need to be liberating ourselves from oil altogether,” he said. “Government is making strides, and I would hope that instead of re-engaging in offshore drilling, the Obama administration would double down on [renewable] energy.”

Offshore wind turbines feeding into the Southern Co.’s electricity grid would get the United States further down the clean-energy road, Smith said.

The Atlanta-based utility giant, along with Georgia Tech, completed a two-year offshore wind feasibility study in June 2008. Scientists, including Shelton, determined that a few sites more than five miles off the coast generate wind speeds of 16 to 17 mph -- “conditions potentially favorable for wind power generation,” according to Southern Co. Each of the locations could accommodate maybe 80 turbines with rotors as long as a football field and barely visible from the shore.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that wind turbines could generate 20 percent of the nation's electricity by 2030. Yet all the relatively paltry amount of wind energy produced today comes from land-based turbines. Unlike Europe, not a single offshore wind farm generates electricity in the United States.

On April 28, Obama approved a 130-turbine wind farm off Massachusetts. After nine years of public opposition and regulatory struggles, the Cape Wind decision emboldened wind-power enthusiasts nationwide.

“It gives me hope,” said Wolff, who has pushed the Tybee City Council and state legislators to embrace alternative energy sources. “Wind and solar, compared to burning fossil fuels, looks really favorable in terms of air and water pollution, environmental degradation and health consequences.”

Southern Co. is in the process of applying for a federal permit to lease possible wind-turbine fields. If the permit is approved, the utility would build meteorological towers to further gauge wind speeds and resistance to hurricanes.

But wind energy off Georgia, in the near term, remains more expensive than traditional electricity sources, according to the study. Even if costs come down, it could easily be a decade before turbines rise off the Georgia coast.