By Peter Galuszka

About 22 miles off Virginia Beach, at points too far to see with human eyes, Virginia’s first real effort to harness the wind for electricity is about to take shape.

Richmond-based Dominion Virginia Power will begin work this year on erecting two wind turbines, each capable of producing 6 megawatts of electricity that will be brought ashore by underwater cable.

Also later this year, the U.S. Department of the Interior will hold a lease sale on 112,800 acres in waters nearby, with Dominion being a prospective bidder. Combined with a larger lease sale off Rhode Island and Massachusetts, the two tracts eventually could support wind farms capable of generating 4,000 megawatts of power, or enough for 1.4 million homes.

That’s about as much power as Dominion’s two Virginia nuclear power stations generate and represents a potential breakthrough for wind energy in this country. The government is “very motivated to get the auction going,” says Guy Chapman, director of Dominion’s renewable energy research and program development.

Indeed, wind energy is a bit of a no-brainer, because it seems to be the ultimate renewable energy source. It doesn’t pollute, produces hardly any climate-changing greenhouse gases, and doesn’t kill coal miners or rip apart the tops of mountains. Unlike nuclear power, wind doesn’t result in spent fuel that’s radioactive for hundreds of years.

Yet offshore wind energy hasn’t taken off in this country despite more than a decade of trying. Offshore wind turbines may dot waters near Holland, Denmark and the United Kingdom. But the first U.S. project — Cape Wind in Massachusetts’ Nantucket Sound — ran into such strong local opposition and regulatory hurdles that it may only get construction started later this year, 12 years after it was first proposed.

For Virginia and other states, offshore wind’s high cost remains its biggest problem. The Energy Information Agency prices offshore wind at $330.60 per megawatt hour. That’s more than double what nuclear power costs and more than three times what a conventional coal-fired plant without carbon-capture technology costs.

Environmentalists are cheering wind along and are heartened that several disparate parts seem to be coming together. “We’re very much in favor of wind,” says Glen Besa, Virginia director of the Sierra Club. But he notes that Dominion has no wind or solar projects going in Virginia yet, and he’s worried that if Dominion gets leases off Virginia Beach it “may just sit on them.”

The problem is economics. Unlike in Europe, the U.S. government pays no direct subsidies for offshore wind other than offering some tax breaks. Therefore, state utility commissions must approve passing along the costs to consumers of more expensive wind projects. In some states such as Massachusetts that’s no problem because the state has a Renewable Portfolio Standard, which states that by 2020, some 15 percent of its energy must come from renewable resources. In New Jersey, it’s 22.5 percent.

Even North Carolina has a mandatory goal of generating 12.5 percent of its energy from wind. But in business-friendly Virginia, the goal is 15 percent and is entirely voluntary.

What’s more, Besa says the State Corporation Commission, which sets consumers’ electricity rates, usually requires utilities to go with the cheapest power available. At the moment that would be natural gas, which is enjoying boom times because of controversial fracking drilling methods. “The SCC may deny more expensive power from wind, and if Dominion can’t sell it elsewhere, it might not generate it,” Besa says.

Dominion’s Chapman says that the utility’s goal is to broaden its mix of power and that gas may not be cheap forever. The utility won $4 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy to help it build its two prototype wind turbines so it can learn more about how to run wind energy efficiently, he says. In a separate case, the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy is moving ahead with plans to lease another federal tract of land off the coast to gather wind data for commercial use.

The pioneering projects in offshore wind were located off of the New England shore because winds there are steady and strong. Regulatory agencies are also more liberal in embracing alternative energy, and customers seem more willing to pay more in their bills for renewable power.

But Cape Wind, the pioneer offshore wind company, ran into problems because the federal government didn’t know how to go about vetting the project. What’s more, Nantucket Sound, where Cape Wind plans to build a 420-megawatt wind farm, is surrounded by high-priced vacation homes. Opponents of the project, which was first proposed in 2001, included a politically diverse crowd, including the late television anchor Walter Cronkite, the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy and the family of ultra-conservative oilmen David H. and Charles G. Koch. Cape Wind won its final approvals in 2010.

Virginia has fewer problems. Its wind farms would be too far out at sea to be seen by vacationers or homeowners. A spokeswoman from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which regulates offshore wind, says that the Navy has given its tentative approval to offshore wind, provided workers are taken off towers if the fleet is training in live fire drills nearby. The Air Force, which holds combat exercises in the area, appears ready to go along with the project as is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which launches missiles from Wallops Island on the Eastern Shore.

Hampton Roads already has plenty of industrial areas and a trained labor force that can fabricate the wind turbines and underwater infrastructure to support them. Huge, 500-foot-tall turbines can be easily towed to sea because they don’t need to pass under any bridges. The region’s defense-heavy facilities have in place redundant electrical transmission lines designed to withstand enemy attack, so there are several ways to transfer power from the shore.

While no area is truly ready to handle offshore wind yet, “Hampton Roads and Virginia clearly have more assets than other locations,” says Tom McNeilan, an executive of Fugro N.V., a Dutch company that handles offshore wind engineering and consulting. His Norfolk office opened in 2007.

Dominion’s spokesman Jim Norvelle says that one concern involves having enough work ships available to handle construction. What’s needed are specialized vessels, but many of them are busy erecting highly profitable oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Foreign-built ships are available, but because of a nearly century-old federal law, they can’t work from American ports without special legal waivers.

Still, offshore wind seems ready to take its first big step after years of waiting. How far it goes in Virginia depends on how much consumers and the State Corporation Commission are willing to deal with its extra expense.

(Note: This story first appeared in Style Weekly)

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7 responses to “Virginia May Help Offshore Wind Power Up”

  1. Sounds like a request for more crony capitalism. The task before those interested in alternative energy sources is to find disruptive technology that provides energy at lower costs.

  2. I’d point something out to Glen Besa – that out west eviros are buying up oil&gas leases to preserve land and nothing prevents them from buying up the wind leases in the East and putting them up for bid with the proviso that they not be “sat on”.

    being an admirer of the Nature Conservancy’s approach to saving land by selling what is not very significant to direct resources to what is – I’d like to see the supporters of “green” energy do something similar rather than arguing that that the govt or Dominion should do it.

    At even more novel idea would be to buy up mountaintops to keep them from being blow off and putting wind turbines on top instead …eh?

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    Fracking pollutes. Coal fired plants pollute. Nuclear plants have risks of catastrophic failure (ask the former Soviets or current Japanese).

    Conservatives believe in “user pays”. Well, at least they believe that so long as somebody else is the “user”.

    Why wouldn’t conservatives support taxing electricity in proportion to its pollution cost? You don’t need to believe in global climate change to see the effects of acid rain. You don’t have to be a fan of Michael Mann to see groundwater pollution from fracking or radioactive disposal problems linked to nuclear.

    Basement dwelling conservatives in Virginia want to tax wage earners to drive on the roads but don’t want to tax the coal fired electricity they need to surf porno sites all day on the internet. Why?

  4. geeze… DJ is whacking it out of the PARK! Better yet – give those Nimby’s at Cape Cod and other places like the Eastern Shore, THEIR CHOICE but it’s gotta be in THEIR back yard!

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      The Cape Cod situation is typical limousine liberalism. Nobody owns navigable waterways. You can own a farm with a cove that has 10,000 feet of frontage on the Chesapeake Bay and you don’t own a square inch of the land under the water. A housewife from West Baltimore has as much of a claim on the land under the Chesapeake Bay (or the Maryland part of the Atlantic Ocean) as the people who own the houses on the shore.

      The people who live near the beach have no special right or veto authority over the use of the waterways and the land underneath the water.

  5. Breckinridge Avatar

    I’m all for a subsidized demonstration project, to learn about the technology and improve the cost efficiency of the turbines, but OSW at the multi-gigawatt scale remains a pipe dream. Some days the wind just doesn’t blow. And nobody is going to invest in a project if the US Navy or USAF can drop a dime on them (now there’s a phrase losing its meaning) and shut things down during exercises. Lots of money to be made checking it out, though…

    Wind has always made more sense to me on mountain tops and ridges, but that is when the environmentalists go nuclear, so the speak. Wind is also a great candidate for distributed generation, with individual homes or industrial sites supplementing the grid but mainly using the power right at the location.

    Nuclear remains the answer nobody wants to hear. Chernobyl resulted from monumental supidity, due to a mistaken design that the US never came close to replicating (no proper cooling system, no proper containment vessel.) Fukushima killed nobody, nada, not one human being has died as a result of that accident. Likewise Three Mile Island, an incident that became a big deal because of a Hollywood movie about as accurate as most Hollywood movies.

    But if you want carbon free power, with one semi-truckload of fuel doing the work of 200 miles of coal cars, North Anna 3 should be followed by Surry 3. Or better yet a new small modular reactor (SMR) plant.

  6. cities used to generate their own electricity. Virtually every city has a defunct “power plant”. what happened to them?

    they got moved outside of town. why? talk about your location specific costs!

    but that’s my “solution”. A city or region picks the power they want but it’s got to be in their place… instead of sucking off some other location.

    the gas bonanza has been a game-changer for solar and wind “unreliability” and here’s why.

    NG plants fire up lightening quick and can be easily modulated to ramp up or ramp down their output to the grid. That means they are complimentary to wind/solar. Pity the enviro-weenies who are so focused on the “fracking” that they can’t even look a gift-horse in the mouth on this!

    The other thing to keep in mind with wind and solar is …. ISLANDS!

    yes.. islands! Go find out how a place like Bermuda or Haiti or Hawaii gets electric power and you’d find out real quick that wind/solar are competitive with the way they do it now.

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