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September 29, 2004

NC Solar Center — Capturing Coastal Winds

NC Solar Center’s Shawn Fitzpatrick and Beth Mast want to increase the development of wind energy in North Carolina, especially in eastern North Carolina. Behind them is the data logger for the wind turbine on the grounds of the NC Solar Center. (Photo: Kathi McBlief)

Strong, steady winds made Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks of North Carolina the perfect testing ground for the Wright brothers’ glider. It is those same strong, steady winds that make coastal North Carolina a perfect testing ground for wind turbines. The North Carolina Solar Center at North Carolina State University is conducting the tests as part of its Coastal Wind Initiative program.

The NC Solar Center’s program manager for wind and solar energy, Shawn Fitzpatrick, and renewable energy specialist, Beth Mast, want to increase the development of wind energy in North Carolina, especially in eastern North Carolina. Wind energy is the world’s fastest-growing renewable energy resource, with an annual growth rate of 25 percent. Currently, only a few landowners in North Carolina have wind turbines. Through workshops and research projects, Fitzpatrick and Mast hope to educate eastern North Carolina residents, especially those in rural communities, about the economic potential of wind turbines.

Wind turbines are modern-day windmills that generate electricity without polluting the air. Mounted on towers up to 100 feet or higher, they capture the energy of the wind with their spinning blades. There are single wind turbines for farmers, ranchers and homeowners and utility-scale wind “farms” made up of a large number of wind turbines connected to a utility power grid. Some use wind turbines to offset their energy costs; others make a profit by selling their energy to a local utility or leasing land to a wind energy developer.

Wind resource assessment is critical in determining whether a site is appropriate for wind energy development. In North Carolina only two areas have suitable wind resources: the mountains and the coast. Both Appalachian State University (ASU) and the NC Solar Center are using tower-mounted anemometers, wind-measuring devices, to collect wind data from several mountain and coastal sites to determine whether the sites are suitable for wind turbines. They are also using that data to assess the accuracy of the North Carolina wind map that is based on computer-modeled wind speed predictions.

At the top of a 104-foot tower is the NC Solar Center’s 1000-watt wind turbine. Below the wind turbine are anemometers and a wind direction vane. (Photo: Kathi McBlief)

Researchers at ASU have already collected one year’s worth of data from sites in the mountains through an anemometer loan program. In summer 2004 the NC Solar Center began their own anemometer loan program to determine wind resources in eastern North Carolina. The program, called the North Carolina State Observation of Wind (NC SOW), is made possible by the US Department of Energy’s Wind Powering America initiative. Equipment and data are free to participants. Typically, the cost of such systems would range from $1,500 to $7,500.

Fitzpatrick and Mast selected 5 sites spread across 20 coastal counties. Participants had to demonstrate that their sites met a list of criteria, including having a good wind resource according to the wind map. They also had to have a viable wind energy project in mind.

Tower heights for the NC SOW project range from 20 meters to 50 meters with three to five anemometers positioned at various elevations along each tower. An electric data logger at the base of the tower stores the data collected from the anemometers. At the end of every month, participants in the loan program pull data plugs from the loggers and mail them to the NC Solar Center.

By the end of the yearlong collection process, data from the NC SOW project will determine which sites are economically suitable for wind turbines. “If a site looks very promising, we will encourage the owner to invest in an energy system,” Fitzpatrick said.

A companion project to NC SOW is the formation of a Coastal Wind Working Group (CWWG). Mast plans to take data collected from NC SOW and present it to key stakeholders, such as the Coastal Area Management Authority, the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the NC Farm Bureau. Through this working group, she hopes to address concerns specific to coastal wind resource development. She also plans to demonstrate the economic potential of wind energy development in eastern North Carolina, especially in low-income rural communities.

According to Mast, low-income farmers would especially benefit from erecting wind turbines because they could cut electric bills while using their land for other purposes. “Wind is a homegrown energy that we can harvest right alongside our corn, soybeans, hogs, poultry or other crops. We can use the energy in our local communities, or we can export it to other markets.”

The wind turbine and tower are hoisted into position at the NC Solar Center. (Photo: Beth Mast, NC Solar Center)

In addition to offsetting energy costs, wind turbines have the potential to be moneymakers. Fitzpatrick noted, “Most people are interested in NC SOW because they are interested in generating their own power. Fewer are aware that they can start a project and sell the power to the utility grid. In fact, NC GreenPower is actively seeking wind projects.”

Established in January 2003 by the NC Utilities Commission, the NC GreenPower program ( is a nonprofit program that uses voluntary contributions to purchase electricity generated from renewable energy sources, such as wind, to add to the state’s power supply. “NC GreenPower pays a premium price for wind-generated electricity,” Fitzpatrick said.

According to Fitzpatrick, a utility-scale wind project could be as small as one 10-kilowatt wind turbine or as large as 15 turbines totaling 20 megawatts interconnected to a local utility grid. “One to two acres of land would need to be set aside for a project like this,” he said, “but the land would serve a dual purpose. It would generate electricity up to 200 feet in the air, but underneath the wind turbine there would still be grazing or farming land.”

Leasing land to a third party wind developer is another possibility. “In the Midwest, farmers are able to lease their land to developers and get $2,000 to $4,000 annually per turbine installation,” Mast said. “Although currently there are no wind developers in North Carolina, two companies have been following renewable energy in North Carolina,” Fitzpatrick added.

In addition to NC SOW and CWWG projects, Fitzpatrick and others installed a 1000-watt wind turbine on a 104-foot tower at the NC Solar Center as an outreach project so that people could see what a wind turbine looks like. “The site doesn’t have a good wind resource, but there is nothing better than having a wind turbine in the backyard that people can touch,” Fitzpatrick said. That particular wind turbine also serves another outreach purpose — Fitzpatrick and Mast have dismantled it and erected it many times for wind turbine installation workshops.

In North Carolina there is burgeoning interest in wind energy. Through education and research, Fitzpatrick and Mast hope to foster that interest. Harnessing the energy of coastal winds helped to create the era of flight. Perhaps harnessing that same power will create an era of wind energy development in North Carolina.

Fitzpatrick and Mast assemble a wind turbine. (Photo: Tim Dunn, NC Solar Center) The crew assembles the tower for the wind turbine. A cup anemometer is in the foreground. (Photo: Shawn Fitzpatrick, NC Solar Center) Shawn Fitzpatrick mounts a wind direction vane to the tower. (Photo: Tim Dunn, NC Solar Center)

— mcblief —

For more information about the Coastal Wind Initiative program, access the NC Solar Center’s website,

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