Imagine you’re at the beach. The sun, the sand and wind turbines? This could soon be the reality along the coast of North Carolina. As the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management moves forward with leasing thousands of acres to utility scale wind energy developers, dozens of 500 foot tall turbines could soon be built offshore. Even though the technology would produce clean, renewable power, there are some downsides to wind farms, most noticeably aesthetics.
Turbines are visible up to 30 miles from shore. The closer to the beach a wind farm is, the more it obstructs the view of an otherwise pristine horizon. In 2011, Director for the Center of Environmental and Resources Economic Policy at North Carolina State University Laura Taylor was among a team of researchers curious to know how the location of a wind farm off the coast of North Carolina might affect tourism.
“We partnered with local realtors, one in the northern Outer Banks area, one near Morehead City and one in southern North Carolina, Brunswick County. And we picked those three parts of the state because in 2011, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management had identified waters off those three coasts as being potential for wind energy development.”
The study started in 2011. Taylor says they surveyed 484 individuals who rented a vacation property that summer. Respondents were asked whether or not they would rent the property again if wind turbines were part of the view. To give them some perspective, Taylor says they provided digitally altered photographs of what the new skyline would look like.
“Different views of up to 144 turbines either placed 5 miles, 8 miles, 12 miles, 18 miles out to sea, or too far out where you could no longer visually see them.”
A wind farm located 18 miles or farther from shore starts to fade out of view. It appears faintly over the horizon, mostly lost in the haze. But the view from only five miles would be much more intrusive.
“Since the wind turbines are spaced about a half mile apart, the average person standing on the beach would have their entire peripheral vision filled with turbines as they looked out to sea.”
The research went beyond asking their preference on distance. It also surveyed if a rental discount would make a difference in their interest in staying.
“So for instance, some individuals may have seen a view of 144 turbines at five miles from shore and been offered a 10 percent discount on their rental price. While other folks may have seen that same view and only a five percent discount on their rental. Or we allowed some folks saw those views with no change in rental price and even an increase in rental price because we wanted to allow people to express a preference for seeing wind turbines up close.”
Taylor says the group that was most amenable to viewing turbines agreed a five percent discount on a rental was fair. But more than half of the people surveyed said they would vacation elsewhere.
“It’s important to recognize that was for the most visually intrusive view which was 144 turbines placed five miles from shore.”
Once the wind farm was moved eight miles or farther offshore, Taylor says the group that’s most amenable to viewing them wouldn’t require a discount. But the rest, over 50%, say they wouldn’t stay if turbines were positioned that close. Taylor says from an economics point of view, the people leaving because of the hindered view would eventually be replaced by people who don’t mind seeing a wind farm in the distance.
“It would be as if you have a home and you used to have woods behind your house but a little shopping center gets built with a restaurant. For some people that would be a negative amenity and they might sell their house and move. But others might move right in and those who don’t mind being next to and might enjoy being able to walk to a restaurant might move in and not require a discount.”
That would be a risky move, since many of the people who vacation at our beaches have been doing so for years, even a lifetime.
“Folks feel really strongly about these location. They often grew up going to these beaches and now take their children.”
Thirty percent of respondents in the survey say they’ve rented the exact same house year after year. Attracting an entirely new customer base to replace current renters could be a lengthy and difficult process.
“If you build turbines that are close to shore and you lose those loyal customers, you have to find the new ones. That requires advertising, could be some transition cost as you go from the old situation to finding those new renters that will come in.”
Placing wind turbines close to shore could be detrimental to the tourism industry at our coast. Fewer renters would mean local businesses would take a hit. On the other side of the coin, placing wind farms farther offshore would mean increased costs for developers.
“But our estimates suggest that moving them from five to eight miles could remove the negative community cost and the gains to the community could very well outweigh those developer’s cost.”
The good news for our area here at the Crystal Coast is that wind farms close to shore are off the table due to possible impacts to the military, although that could change. There are currently three wind energy areas approved by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management for wind leasing; one near Kitty Hawk, and two sites near Wilmington. All of these areas identified for commercial wind farms are located more than 10 nautical miles from shore, with the farthest one extending out to sea 24 nautical miles. When built, these wind farms will be able to be seen from shore, but according to this study, shouldn’t have significant impacts on tourism in North Carolina.