Is Offshore Wind Finally Twirling in Virginia?

By Peter Galuszka

After years of hemming and hawing about offshore oil drilling, Virginia finally seems on track to develop wind energy off its coast.

The U.S. Interior Department announced Nov. 30 that next year it would lease rights to 112,800 acres of ocean bed a little more than 23 miles off the southern part of the state’s Eastern Shore. Annual rent would be about $338,000. It would be the first such lease for wind power in the country.

The Virginia windmills could generate 2,000 megawatts of electricity, or about 200 megawatts more than what Dominion’s North Anna nuclear power station puts out. Other leases were announced off of coasts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.  Interested companies include Dominion, Electricity de France SA and Iberdrola SA.

There really hasn’t been much in the way of offshore wind power in the U.S. Most of the activity by far is off the southern and western coasts of the United Kingdom and off of the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway. China plans some big farms too. The early ones are nowhere the size of what could happen off the coast of the Old Dominion although future foreign  projects are as big in terms of megawatts.

What’s curious is how little attention the announcement got in the Old Dominion. The Richmond newspaper did put it on its front page but during the past election, there was so much drubbing of the rising renewable energy sector — Solyndra, corruption and all that, but forget the oil depletion allowance — that wind and solar seemed tainted.

Therein lies the rub since the Mitt Romney campaign, raking in millions in Big Oil and King Coal money, tied itself with an American flag to fossil fuel. It made a big deal of claiming that it was Barack Obama’s regulation and not the stunning  rise of natural gas that was beating up on coal. They also claimed, with the controversial pipeline from Canada in mind, that oil and gas were being brought to their knees. In fact, credible research groups were reporting that oil and gas were in such a boom in the U.S. that country could be a net exporter of hydrocarbon energy by 2020.

In Virginia, you now have a game going on of offshore wind one-upmanship.

In  his quest to make Virginia “The Energy Capital of the East Coast,” Gov. Robert F. McDonnell has said he backs all types of energy sources, including hydrocarbons and renewables. But he obviously likes offshore oil drilling, judging from his statements and the big number of oil drilling displays versus the few wind exhibits shown at his annual energy conferences.

During this year’s election campaign, Republican McDonnell also pounded  Obama hard for nixing Virginia’s planned oil and gas offshore lease sales just after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig explosion and blowout caused widespread pollution in the Gulf of Mexico.

Not skipping a beat after winning the election, the Obama Administration stuck it back to McDonnell. The U.S. Interior Department won fanfare with its announcement of the lease sale for wind turbines.

Still in the fight, the Governor issued a press release saying he’s always urged wind power development off the Virginia coast and listed eight or so examples of what it has done, wind-wise.

And so it goes. We’ll have to see what really happens with wind offshore. What will the Navy say? It objected to offshore oil rigs saying they’d interfere with its combat target ranges off the Virginia Capes. The seafood and tourism industries also protested oil rigs, but it would seem windmills are a bit less threatening, provided fish trawlers keep their nets away. Doubtful you’d see the windmills from Virginia Beach oceanfront hotel balconies. No one ever heard of beaches being ruined by a wind spill.

One historical note. I was cleaning up my office the other day and found a copy of a front-page article I wrote for The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star. I quote my lede:

“An offshore oil field bristling with derricks may be developed off the Virginia and North Carolina coats if the federal government and oil companies follow through with plans already in motion.

“More than 3 million acres of ocean bottom from New Jersey to northern Florida will be offered to oil companies by the end of next year, provided the secretary of the interior gives his approval as expected.

“Within a decade or more, oil platforms may tower as close to the North Carolina coast as 16 nautical miles off Cape Lookout, should oil or gas be discovered. The closest sites off Virginia would be about 70 miles away.”

The date of my story? Jan. 11, 1981. Jimmy Carter was still president. Ronald Reagan was about to take office.

Besides showing my age, it pays tribute to the adage, “the more things change . . .” (You fill in the rest.)

4 Responses to Is Offshore Wind Finally Twirling in Virginia?

  1. Offshore wind has long been held to be expensive because of the harsh environment and difficult logistics.

    Two factors may be working to change that. Until recently, there has been a dearth of ships available to build and maintain offshore wind farms. Ships for this purpose have had to be borrowed ro begged from other enterprises, typically offshore oil. Now there are several purpose built ships coming on line expressly desingend and built to service the wind turbine industry.

    The inability to construct roads to the turbine sites may soon shift from a problem to an asset. Not to menton the possible benefit from the fish reef such a wind farm may represent. If the wind farm itself is held off limits to fishing, it could become a breeding ground that vastly increases the fish avaialble in the surrounding areas.

    Siemens has develeoped a prototype HVDC switch, preveiously unavailable. This switch has the characteristic of making it possible to transmit high voltage DC current over long distances with 10% of the line loss of an AC system. In addition, it will make large DC networks (like offshore wind farms) far more stable, which means they will need less natural gas backup. In a DC environment you can think of a wind farm as a giant DC capacitor, which can charge and discharge, fluctuating in DC voltage while still delivering stable AC current to the customer.

  2. the ‘hit’ on wind/solar has long been and continues to be that it’s not “reliable’ and is expensive and besides we’d need a smart grid and a lot of natural gas backup.

    so in one breath – the opponents rule it out because it cannot be a 100% provider of electricity and at the same time they essentially throw away the need for a smart grid and natural gas.

    Both natural gas and a smart grid seem to be on the ascent and that makes for a much easier environment for wind/solar to not only exist but to add value to the grid.

    A localized natural gas/solar/wind generation capability may have been a benefit to places devastated by Sandy.

    The most amazing thing to me was that in NoVa the derechos took down the grid from trees falling whereas in NY/NJ – it was trees but also water… in the underground locations of the power grid.

  3. How much of Sandy’s destruction could have been avoided if there were no structures in the flood plain or reclaimed land (Manhattan)?

  4. re: structures in the flood plain.

    complex subject when it comes to structures that have been then 50, 100, 200 years combined with the frequency of storm events and surges of this magnitude.

    if a place has been flooded every decade or even every 50 years – there’s enough of a pattern there for most generations to recognize and that would include banks making mortgages and insurance companies willing to sell coverage.

    but what happens when the frequency starts out very low and then start increasing?

    what do you do then – when people have their entire life savings invested?

    My question is – was Sandy not unique but has happened before… just very rare?

    but more than the electric grid is involved – much of NY/NJ power and transit infrastructure is below sea level – for that matter so are some of the tunnels in Hampton Roads (which do have flood doors).

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