Why Doesn’t Virginia Have More Wind Power?

Map credit: National Renewable Energy Lab
Map credit: National Renewable Energy Lab

Why hasn’t Virginia made more progress in generating energy from wind power? This map from the National Renewable Energy Lab highlights the problems we face. Unlike the plains states, where almost every square mile is wind blown, Virginia has few suitable locations. Wind power is practical only offshore and on scattered mountain ridges.

Putting windmills on mountaintop ridges poses a problem because it disrupts viewsheds. Every mountain-ridge wind project proposed in Virginia has generated opposition from the surrounding population. In several instances, local governing bodies have used their zoning powers to thwart the projects. Of the half-dozen wind farms proposed over the past decade, not one has been built. As long as (a) people believe they have a right to exercise veto power over land uses for aesthetic reasons, such as protecting viewsheds, and (b) local governments have the power to restrict land uses based upon aesthetic impact, wind power projects likely will be blocked at the local level.

Building wind power projects off-shore avoids the viewshed issue because  turbines can be placed far enough at sea that they won’t be visible from the shore. However, offshore wind power on the East Coast of the U.S. faces a chicken-or-egg problem. Wind power is incredibly expensive because the supporting maritime infrastructure is not available on the East Coast; specialized ships and equipment must be brought in from Europe at great cost. But the wind-power industry is not willing to invest in establishing an East Coast presence until there is sufficient volume of business to support it.

It might be possible to overcome the chicken-or-egg problem if enough players committed to enough wind projects within a relatively narrow time frame to make it financially worthwhile for the wind industry to make that commitment. So far, no one has undertaken such an effort. Offshore wind initiatives remain frustratingly piecemeal.

Perhaps one thing the McAuliffe administration could do to advance wind power in Virginia and the East Coast would be to convene a meeting of every East Coast state with an interest in wind power along with major wind industry players to build the necessary critical mass. Hampton Roads, with its large existing shipbuilding fabrication industry and central East Coast location, is the logical location for the wind industry to be situated. We have the most to gain, so we should take the lead.


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19 responses to “Why Doesn’t Virginia Have More Wind Power?”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    Maybe I’m missing something. What’s wrong with Virginia’s Eastern Shore?

    or for that matter – wind turbines every half mile on the CBBT?

  2. Cville Resident Avatar
    Cville Resident

    Really good post. It’s worth noting that the “critical mass” strategy was a winner with hybrids.

    The much-derided Clinton Foundation helped spur a number of municipal bus systems around the globe to switch to hybrid technology during a short time frame to create the critical mass necessary to lower costs of production. Now, I’d say the majority of cities that I’ve visited have hybrid bus fleets, and hybrid vehicles are all over the road.

  3. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    I have mixed feelings about the “forced” critical mass. I do think it would be a good step for McAuliffe to host a meeting of other East Coast governors to discuss wind power. To the extent this results in consensus that develops greater demand, this is also good, IMO.

    However, at some point we risk yet another crony capitalism situation. Businesses need to develop their markets and bear the associated costs. There is nothing wrong with coordinating with governments to achieve mutual goals. But there is a risk of giving private investors access to government coercion (You have to allow this.) and taxpayer dollars to cover business expenses.

    It’s simply wrong to have taxpayers pay business costs directly while leaving profits to the sheltered investors. There is a fine line here, and I hope it is not crossed.

  4. Probably best option is probably on shore wind in WV, MD, PA where they do have good wind resources. We need to explore the best way to do this and get credits in the Clean Power Plan. I believe the CPP has removed off shore wind as a priority, recognizing the longer term time horizon, so the focus of gov’t incentives will be solar and on shore wind. To do on shore in state, Virginia probably needs to focus on giving incentives and helping the utilities get local approvals where there is resistance.

  5. JOHN BR Avatar

    Completely ignored is the question: Why should Virginia get into wind power? Because others are doing it? Because the feds will VA give some $? That’s about it–and those are not good reasons.

    Wind power uses huge swaths of land, provides very little electricity, is very expensive, turbines need constant maintenance and have a short useful life, birds are decimated, it requires extensive transmission systems that cost more than any power provided. There are many other reasons why wind should be avoided. European countries that met the “critical mass” are now backing away because it has been a financial and technical disaster.

    I was a former big advocate for wind power, until actually seeing the results. Solar has a real future. Wind is a boondoggle.

    1. Rowinguy Avatar

      John, I think you are right regarding wind in Virginia. I do believe, though, that there are plenty of good locations for wind in the Midwest and in Texas and it will be part of regional grid solution to CPP in those places. But, look at that map–there’s NO on-shore wind resource in the entire Southeast US

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    EIA sez this:

    fuel levalized cost

    wind onshore 73.6
    wind offshore 196.9
    coal 95.1
    nat gas 75.2
    nuke 95.2

    I presume they have incorporated capital and operational costs.

    wind along mountain ridges in Appalachia

    it’s not one linear range – it’s several “folds”. The inner folds ridges
    are not generally seen at the distances that the outer folds are.

    In Md – crossing the Appalachians – you come up on the turbines all of a sudden – as you climb the roads and even then you lose sight as you wind around.

    we have millions and millions of birds killed by cars and feral cats…as wall as windows… they fly into, fences, high power lines. Hardly a month goes by that I don’t find a dead bird below a window… or one flies into the car… and I cannot count the number of squirrels, ground hogs and other hapless critters we kill with cars. I’m quite sure – most folks here who drive must notice the carnage …

    Wind 36 57.7 12.8 0.0 3.1 73.6
    Wind – Offshore 38 168.6 22.5 0.0 5.8 196.9

  7. I’m completely with JohnBR on this one. Wind is a boondoggle, as areas much better suited to it (like Texas) have discovered. Like solar it must be paired with natural gas or equivalent backup generation for the MANY hours when wind energy isn’t available, and if you’re going to build those natural gas units anyway the marginal cost to use them all the time instead of just to supplement wind generation is not that much. In fact the additional cost to run the n.g. all the time is significantly less than amortizing the additional cost to build the wind power; in other words, it makes no economic sense to build the wind power plus the natural gas power rather than natural gas alone. THE EXCEPTION: where federal or State subsidies tilt the playing field in favor of wind.

    The foregoing assumes on-shore wind generation near a transmission line where it can deliver its power, despite the opposition to view impairment etc. If you go offshore (or to a remote location like the Eastern Shore oceanfront) you have (1) tremendous additional expense to build the platform and above-water structure at sea on a mud/sand bottom adequate to support the wind turbine; (2) tremendous additional expense to install the underwater transmission line necessary to deliver the power to the nearest major substation, taking into account the significant environmental expense to install said underwater transmission line in a way that does not create many miles of fried oysters; and (3) the significant additional expense of maintaining said generator and structure at sea, with the added cost of on-shore support and boating facilities and additional labor costs. Putting one of these wind generator units out there off the coast is not a trivial operation! And again, what have you achieved when it’s up and running, relative to 100% natural gas generation?

    Larry, the EIA figures you quote are for natural gas alongside wind, cost per mwh of energy at the generator, without any consideration of differences in availability, investment, delivery cost or support cost. You must look at the total package of costs.

    1. I misspoke; delete “investment” from costs not considered by EIA, I should have said “investment in necessary additional facilities.”

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      re: availability ..in addition to levelized costs..

      that thought did cross my mind… but then flew out.

  8. Larry, also, I’d like to see the EIA source of your numbers, they look way off to me.

  9. Update on the tight deadlines Virginia faces in the EPA Clean Power Plan (CPP) mandate:


    Virginia may possibly need to take a more proactive state role encouraging on-shore wind farms in the areas where it makes sense. It all depends on our state plan, which to my knowledge, does not yet exist.

    I do not think off shore wind is going to be ready for the CPP plan, but maybe after 2030 it fits in.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Who develops the State Plan?

      1. Looks like the Va DEQ is getting into the process:

        Be sure to click on the link for the public “listening” sessions. Sheesh, I want to hear what they think, but I guess we gotta tell them what we think instead.

        Getting back to the question above, why wind at all? EPA is mandating shut down of many coal plants. Furthermore, EPA does NOT want to replace coal with natural gas. I do not agree with EPA, but EPA feels natural gas also causes “carbon pollution”. Therefore on-shore wind and solar (renewables growth) is the main goal of the CPP.

        However, Virginia does have flexibility to do what makes sense. Jim’s map suggests wind could be a be smaller element of Virginia’s plan.

  10. LarrytheG Avatar

    maybe someone answered.

    why is the Eastern Shore not considered a candidate for wind?

  11. I’ll take a stab at the factors:

    Eastern shore plus: farmland not fashionable second homes worried about the view; land relatively cheap; local political support easier to come by.

    ES minus: nearby transmission system not as strong, wind profile not as favorable (if transmission can’t handle the generated power, the developer has to pay to upgrade the electric company’s system to handle his impact; and, wind tends to be stronger a few hundred feet above the ground so a prevailing-wind-facing ridge has better wind over time than flatland unless the developer builds a hell of a tall tower to compensate).

    Balance: the market seems to say go to the mountains.

  12. I am glad my question “Why…?” raised a lot of comments.
    TBill provided the only definitive answer as to the why:
    Because the federal government is forcing VA and others to do this. Not because it is cheaper, better or even necessary. But because the EPA says so, period.
    Not a good reason, not good at all. And our children and grandchildren will suffer the consequence.

    1. Yes but the federal government is forcing Virginia to develop a state plan for EPA approval, and pronto! So we have some interesting times ahead.

      The worst case scenario is if Virginia cannot develop a plan, let’s say due to partisan wrangling in a purple state. In that case EPA prescribes the plan for us. Sort of like sequestration. but we need a new word for it. I’ll think on that new word.

      So I am envisioning a non-partisan approach, and that approach necessarily includes doing all we can reasonably do to increase on-shore wind in Virginia’s power mix. If we try and fail, at least we tried and the public and EPA will be able to know the answer about why we could not do more wind.

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