North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper. Credit: Roy Cooper / Flickr / Creative Commons

The study was approved as part of the legislature’s budget, which was vetoed by the governor over other matters.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper says an analysis of the state’s offshore wind potential will move forward despite a months-long impasse over the state budget.

“We’re going to do the studies regardless,” Cooper told the Energy News Network this week after speaking at a gathering of wind energy advocates and businesses in Cary, just outside the state capital. “We know we need to move to a clean energy future in order to fight climate change, but we also know that clean energy creates so many good-paying jobs for the people of North Carolina. Offshore wind is a way to do that.”

The studies would examine the state’s potential to manufacture, ship and service offshore wind turbine components: enormous towers, blades and other specialized parts that are now imported from Europe. Industry experts say the study is a key step toward offshore wind development in North Carolina, where the technical potential is enormous.

While the U.S. is home to only one operating wind farm off the Rhode Island coast, the federal government has leased areas that could hold an additional 14 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity, enough to power over 5 million homes, according to a report from Environment America Research and Policy Center. That includes a patch of ocean off North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Several other lease areas in the Atlantic are in the planning stages, including up to 8.9 gigawatts of offshore wind projects from Maryland to South Carolina.

Many states, especially in the Northeast, are racing to establish manufacturing supply chains and servicing jobs for all this development, creating a virtuous cycle of more local jobs, lower costs, and more offshore wind energy. 

Industry advocates who gathered in Cary on Wednesday believe North Carolina is well-positioned to create its own positive feedback loop, and “drag offshore wind development to the South.” The state has a robust energy-related manufacturing sector, including 27 wind-related manufacturing facilities that employ over 1,000 people, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

Offshore wind studies: ‘Important work’

Other states have helped jumpstart their offshore markets with a transparent assessment of ports and existing manufacturing capabilities. After Virginia conducted its own pair of studies, Dominion Energy proposed building the largest ocean-based wind farm in the country off the Virginia Beach coast.

Cooper, a Democrat, had proposed North Carolina studies early this year, and they were ultimately approved by the Republican-led General Assembly as part of the budget for the current fiscal year. But their fates have been in limbo since Cooper vetoed the budget over other matters: Lawmakers have neither overridden nor sustained him, and the state remains without an overall budget.

Despite the logjam, Cooper expressed confidence about moving forward. “We want the legislature to be involved in this,” he said. “I don’t worry about us having capability to conduct the necessary studies … because I believe there’s enough will to do that.”

Asked whether the state could find the $300,000 originally earmarked for the research, Cooper wasn’t concerned. “We can work that out,” he said.

Originally envisioned as a year-long endeavor, the study could be completed within six months, said Katharine Kollins, the president of the Southeastern Wind Coalition, a co-sponsor of the conference and a key advocate for the analysis. “There are so many experts in this field right now, and there are so many experts on the sidelines that we’ll be able to get it done,” she said. “It’s important work and we are glad to support that work in any way that we can.”

Rep. Holly Grange, a third-term Republican from Wilmington, fought to include the offshore wind provision in the spending plan that cleared the General Assembly. “This faced resistance from some of my colleagues,” she said, speaking at the gathering after Cooper had left.  

“We had to use some creativity to keep the study in the budget,” she said, overcoming Senate opposition by directing the University of North Carolina at Wilmington — not bureaucrats within the Cooper administration — to conduct the analysis.

During her prepared remarks, Grange, who is seeking the Republican nomination to unseat Cooper in 2020, criticized Cooper’s veto. Told afterward he planned to move forward with the study anyway, she offered measured praise. “I think for it to be successful we need to have that buy-in from the legislature,” she said. But, she added, “if the state can fund it with existing resources, that’s great.”

A challenge to ‘leverage the positive things’

While the Cary gathering — also sponsored by the Business Network for Offshore Wind — was focused on turbines spinning some 24 nautical miles off the North Carolina coast, Cooper and Grange both spoke in support of land-based wind farms, which some GOP lawmakers have sought to ban for fear of conflicts with military bases.

Grange, who served with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told conference attendees that a federal process exists to avoid such interference. That system should determine whether a wind farm gets developed, she said, not “a personal vendetta that some of my colleagues may have against the wind industry.”

Cooper was equally firm in his prepared remarks, saying he would “guarantee” there would be no more moratoriums on wind farms like the one that was lifted at the start of this year.

“I think we’ve been able to build a bipartisan coalition on renewable energy,” he said. If another ban on wind energy reached his desk, he said. “I will veto, and I think the veto will be sustained. But I don’t think it will ever reach me. We can beat off the negative things. Our challenge now is to leverage the positive things.”

Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Elizabeth has covered the state’s clean energy transition for the Energy News Network since 2016. She has also produced features for Environmental Health News and SEJournal, the news magazine of the Society of Environmental Journalists. A former communications director for the nonprofit Environment America, Elizabeth brings over two decades of environmental and energy policy experience to her reporting.