I stumbled across this story while researching my lead column for this week’s Rebellion. It was so cool and so under-reported that I just had to write about it. Virginia’s greatest natural energy endowment is not the coal seams of southwest Virginia but the windy expanse of the continental shelf. The potential for generating electricity through windpower is orders of magnitude greater off the coast than it is inland. And unlike Virginia’s coal reserves, which are rapidly depleting, wind is renewable.

According to computer models created by Virginia Tech engineers, the Mid-Atlantic coastline between Virginia and Delaware is the most ideally suited location on the East Coast to place windfarms. A plot the size of Virginia Beach, encompassing about three percent of Virginia’s continental shelf, could hold enough wind-powered turbines to supply 20 percent of the state’s current power needs. Unlike the controversial wind farm proposed off the coast of Cape Code, Virginia’s windmills would stand 10 or more miles from the shore, making them nearly invisible to frolickers on the beach.

Outside of hydroelectric, which has few viable sites left to exploit, wind power is the most economically competitive with fossil fuels of all the renewable fuels. Wind power is not pie in the sky. Offshore development of wind farms is already taking place in Europe. We don’t have to invent anything. All we have to do is learn from the Europeans.

Wind power could represent a two-fer for Virginia. Not only is wind a non-polluting source of energy, it could form the basis of a major new industry. Who would be better equipped to fabricate the massive wind turbines, which are the size of Boeing 747s, and then install them in 50 feet of water than the steel-benders in the Norfolk/Newport News ship-building/repair sector? If Virginia gets the jump on neighboring states, Hampton Roads could become the center of a vibrant new industry.

Here’s the story:

Wind Shear
Virginia is an energy-rich state, and the mother lode sits off the coast. Electric power generated by off-shore wind turbines could slice our dependence on polluting fossil fuels within a decade or two.

Update: Virginia wind-power enthusiasts should check out Virginia Wind, a website dedicated to wind power in Virginia.

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16 responses to “Wind Shear”

  1. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Quite an excellent article Jim.

    This appears to be one of those no-brainers and there absolutely has to be a downside “gotcha” or else investors would be falling all over themselves in the ensuing stampede.

    I can guess why Dominion Power would be lukewarm to the idea .. they’ve got so much money plowed into their current methods that they’re either not going to respond or respond slowly… faster.. if there was a real threat of a competitor.

    But here Dominion is .. right now.. pursuing new Nukes at North Anna… that even if approved would not come online for a decade or more… and one has to wonder … in the realm of their EIS whether or not this has been considered as an alternative.

    I suspect but have no evidence that Dominion Power has essentially a government granted monopoly in Virginia – and that, in turn, dries up the capital investment market for potential competitors.

  2. Well isn’t that just peachy! Maybe the state could take that wind energy revenue and not have to accept out-of-state trash. How nice.

  3. I’ve been using windpower for years, both to power my sailboat and provide electricity. Based on my expenses I figure free wind power for the boat only costs around $2 per mile.

    I hope the wind farms can do better than that, but I wouldn’t count on it. it is still in an unforgiving marine environment.

    The good news is that all the foundations for those things will probably make a great fish reef.

  4. E M Risse Avatar

    There is a scale issue here. No time to develop it now but here are some pointers.

    Those who caution about hydrogen fuel cells and the hydrogen economy in Great Britian say it would take a wind farm 10 miles wide around the entire island to generate enough electricty to create the hydrogen necessary to replace petroleum now consumed.

    (Larry Gross has noted his concern with hydrogen, we will so more on this in the future.)

    The point here is that we need to cut our consumption of energy, regardless of how many alternative we develop.

    By far the largest consumer of energy is dysfunctional settlement patterns. Not just the fuel for mobility and access but the waste of energy in building the wrong size house in the wrong location and then building it in such a way that it is an energy hog.


  5. I don’t place any trust in EMR to decide what anounts to a “wrong location”, but I’ll agree with him about building homes that are energy hogs.

    I like the concept of building to live, in which a small central home is surrounded by lesser used spaces. The kitchen, bath, and den should typically be in the center, and these spaces are surrounded by lesser used spaces, such as bedrooms which need little heat, by three season spaces such as porches, sunrooms, and garages, all of which help insulate the core area. I like enclosed bookcases, cabinets, wardrobes, cosets, and that sort of thing onthe north side of the house where they act as a double wall.

    Properly situated bookcases make a nice and attractive Trombe wall, except it is kind of hard on the books.

    There are thousands of things that can be done, but every time we elect to do one of them, then one or more other things we could have done goes undone. I don’t see any point in flagellating ourselves over what we might have done better, or in denigrating someone else who simply has other priorities.

    Live and let live, let it go, what goes around comes around, there is no free lunch, etc. etc. etc.

  6. I seem to recall seeing a program on renewable energy that claimed that all of Britain’s power needs could be met by just a few square miles of wave machines operating in the North Sea.

    May be when we build the offshore wind farm we can design it in such a way that it also captures tidal current energy, and wave energy. If we absorb enough power we can totally screw up the transfer of energy that heats and cools the earth. There really is no free lunch.

  7. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I suspect everyone is familiar with the Rural Electrification Program – started a long time ago and the impetus behind cooperatives.. like the Rappahannock Electric Cooperative.

    Now.. there is an ongoing tension as to whether cooperatives are really relevant anymore or just relics but the point I wanted to make was that the GOAL of that early program was to spread electric power far and wide so that everyone – even those in remote rural areas had access to it.

    In fact, it was subsidized because there was no way to charge rural customers what it actually cost to extend the service so the cost was spread across all customers.. and I believe some tax money involved also.

    So – the infrastructure is built – right now.

    People already can live pretty much anywhere and the power companies primary issue with growth – is not building brand new infrastructure – but upgrading existing – which might include new power lines into dense, fast growing areas – like NoVa – not so much is far-flung areas that while growing.. are not dense… so power needs are lower.

    So I’m not sure I understand the premise of power to dispersed homes.

    The OTHER point to make is that “off the grid” technology – like that used by folks who DO live where there there is a lack of power availability… ARE quite literally dispersed.

    If the technology itself proceeds.. becomes more optimized.. and more people installing it – it will be available to anyone no matter whether they live in a compact development or in a classic sprawl area… and, in fact, trying to put it on a home in a compact development .. may be difficult.

    You’d almost need some kind of a neighborhood utility site… for compact development wouldn’t you?

  8. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: penalizing people for locational costs.

    I, like Ray, am opposed to artificial cost structures to force anyone to do anything… that they would not do in a free economy.

    but I do think that people should pay the fair and equitable costs of their personal decisions and not expect other taxpayers to subsidize them.

    I’m not sure power is involved in this equation now days.

    It was when it was deemed in everybody’s interest that our rural areas needed electrification.

    Farms would be more productive. People who lived on farms … could be more self-sufficient and perhaps even be able to hire additional employees because of higher productivity.

    But extending power based on “need” results in power being available for other purposes.. like building a home 50 miles from where you work.

    Now.. I’m near the end of my knowledge of this subject.

    I know that my electric bill NOW has separate charges for power generation and distribution. What I don’t know is if my distribution costs are different from others – but I doubt they are – and to be honest – I’m not sure, even with powerful computers this could be easily calculated.

    What would the distribution calculation look like? Would it be from your house to .. where? If power is pumped into the grid.. from many sources…that vary in real-time.. what would be the calculation?

    And wouldn’t folks who live in one place but some work there and some work 50 miles away.. how would you calculate the differential?

    I just don’t see this as practical at all.. unless I’m in stupid mode as I write this.. perhaps those who advocate this.. can lay down a prospective method…

  9. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Larry, you ask whether your distribution costs are different from anyone else’s. Let me give you an example. Richard Hirsh, one of the Virginia Tech professors I interviewed, suggested that one of the economically competitive applications of solar energy would be at the end of certain distribution lines, where generating electricity locallly would be cheaper than upgrading the transmission lines and sub-stations to wheel in the power from elsewhere. So, yes, the cost of extending power to remote, sparsely settled locations does require a greater investment of infrastructure per capita — and, I would surmise, a greater maintenance cost per capita. Cleaning up miles and miles of power lines in wind storms and ice storms does not come cheap.

    Regarding another point you made: the idea of a neighborhood utility. I don’t know how state law would impact the formation of neighborhood utilities, but that is exactly the kind of thing that the General Assembly should be looking at. I don’t think that government should try to pick technology winners and losers by handing out subsidies and incentives. But I do think government has a constructive role in creating a legal and regulatory framework that would encourage private-sector innovation.

  10. Citizen Tom Avatar
    Citizen Tom

    Like Mr. Bacon, I do not think the government should pick technology winners and losers by handing out subsidies and incentives. However, I do think the government should slowly increase taxes on energy sources that cannot be renewed. I have two reasons for this opinion. The first is that we have a profound strategic interest in eliminating our dependence on foreign oil. We should not be funding the regimes that sell us this oil. The second is due to the finite supplies of oil, gas, coal and other such fossil fuels. We know we eventually must run out of these materials.

    In the long run, burning up oil, gas, and coal represents a tremendous waste. These materials have other uses. For example, these materials have important uses in our chemical industries.

    One other thought. We should not take too seriously the complaint that wind power by itself in not a solution to the energy problem. Is there a requirement that we solve the energy problem with just one single solution? Do we satisfy all our energy needs from one single source right now? If our industries come up with an inexpensive combination of solutions, why is that a problem?

  11. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    What is the easiest PATH for Dominion Power to pursue additional capacity and facilities?

    Why should DP take paths less reliable or with higher chances of running into trouble or be derailed?

    What do the shareholder of DP expect DP to do? well.. for one thing.. not do take o risky ventures that would degrade the value of their stock.

    So .. my point is.. there is no incentive for DP to pursue any path other than the easiest, cheapest, and most lucrative.

    We can’t FORCE DP to pursue wind power – even as part of a more comprehensive approach that is strategically intended to move us away from fossil fuels and towards renewables… because even if it IS in OUR best interests it is NOT in their best interests.

    Virginia has essentially given them a near-monopoly and DP does not have viable competitors pursuing alternative energy.

    If you ask DP whether needs for the next 50 years should be met with Nukes or offshore wind .. what do you think their answer would be?

    Va is not a citizen-initiated referenda state… there’s good and bad to that. What it means is that we elect folks who will act in OUR best interests.. what we get is $301,458.00 donated to GA members – to make sure THEY (the GA guys) look out for Dominion Powers interests (#2 in money).

    I’m basically pretty pessimistic with respect to innovation or changes unless something that Dominion cannot control poses a real competitive threat to them – either now or in the future.

    I’m not anti-Dominion Power. I think they do a pretty good job overall.. but they’re big and monolithic.. beholden to Wall Street and their shareholders and only tangentially to citizens and societal interests.

  12. Now, THIS is what I call a good discussion.

    Meanwhile, I hear that France has signed an agreement to create the worlds first commercial nuclear fusion power plant.

    With regard to living in far flung areas, Waldo pointed out that he lives on family property that has been handed down for generations, and as a result they are not going anywhere.

    That situation is a lot different from someone who has a job and a home and deliberately chooses to build a new and larger home 50 miles farther away.

    But it is not so different if, over time, conditions chang such that someone like Waldo or myself suddenly finds that they must travel 50 miles to find suitable work.

    Waldo says “We are not going anywhere.” Maybe he has the resources to say that with conviction, but I have heard other people say the same thing, and then watched them leave with tears in their eyes when they finally had to give up the ancestral home.

    Then, when that happens, someone who doesn’t understand the forces involved, or isn’t close enough to see the real picture, steps up and makes insulting and unhelpful comments about windfall profits.

    So, yes, maybe there is some shared costs in maintaining extended power lines. And maybe that cost increases over time as more people choose to live in remote areas, unless they do as Waldo is doing.

    I maintain that those remote areas are an important part of our social, economic, and environmental fabric, and any attempt to charge them 10x or anything like that is shortsighted, counterpruductive, and, you guessed it, unfair.

    I also think Citizen Tom is correct. Our grandchildren and great grandchildren will look back and say “You mean to say that they used to BURN oil?”.

  13. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “”You mean to say that they used to BURN oil?”.”

    … you mean.. they used to kill whales primarily so they could have evening lamps?

    the problem is.. we ARE TRULY … playing with fire right now…

    we could… easily already be in a situation where we are essentially – walking dead – we simply don’t know it yet.

    In other words.. we might have already so damaged our environment that we’ve set in motion .. something we cannot stop.

    We’re right dumb as people in many respects.

    Most folks know better than to vent engine exhaust into their homes (I said most…)… they KNOW the stuff is deadly. we KNOW that mercury is deadly… I could go on.. but we KNOW quite a bit…

    and we now from superfund sites that dilution has limits…

    BUT then we say that electricity generated from solar/wind is “too expensive”.

    Forget the fact that if we took the same approach to this that we did to putting a man on the moon that we’d end up much further down the technology road AND… we’d be selling this technology to other countries on a worldwide basis – rather than fretting about low-skill jobs being outsourced.

    I dunno about us .. sometimes..

  14. Jim Bacon Avatar

    As far as big, monolithic power companies go, Dominion is a pretty good company. It has championed electric deregulation for a couple of decades now, and even though deregulation has not live up to its promise here in Virginia, it’s an indication that Dominion is thinking imaginatively and creatively.

    What’s interesting about Dominion is that it does not own just a power company. It also owns one of the largest gas distribution companies in the world. In many instances, Dominion competes against incumbent power companies. I read an article (can’t find it now) about how Dominion installed a gas-powered micro-turbine and took some facility in Pennsvylania off the grid. If anyone is going to figure out how to compete effectively against incumbent power companies, it’s probably going to be other big energy companies, not the little mom and pops.

  15. “What would the distribution calculation look like? Would it be from your house to .. where? If power is pumped into the grid.. from many sources…that vary in real-time.. what would be the calculation?”

    Now you are catching on. I frequently agitate for better metrics, but if we did that, most likely what we would find out is that it is impractical. If we really knew what the calculation was, it would turn out to be pretty much a gross average, taken over all.

    We might as well just throw the money in a pot, providing that we know how to spend it wisely. We cannot know how to spend it wisely if we insist on swallowing the fluff pills currently being advertized.

    That is why you and I disagree on transportation spending. You think it should be user pays, and I think we are all users.

    You think that transit is more energy efficient, faster, more economical, and safer than auto use, and I think that is only partly so. By the time you do ALL the calculations, transit doesn;t look so hot. If it had to pay its own full costs, we would find that out in short order. People would not be willing to pay what it costs for the benefit received.

    With roads, the situation is different. We pay for roads through various means. tolls, gas tax, parking fees, sales tax, income tax, real estate tax. And we benefit from roads in various ways, so that is more or less OK, as validated by the legislature.

    But let’s suppose we suddenly or gradually shifted payment to one hundred percent gas tax at 50 cents to the dollar of gas, or something, whatever it takes. Presumably we would simultaneously reduce all the other taxes, in order to keep the no new taxes pledge.

    What would be the result?

    Property values would change, and with them real estate taxes. Sales in some locations would change, and with them sales taxes. Incomes in some locations would change, and with them income taxes.

    But in the end, the roads would still be paid for by those that use them, and all the other costs would be redistributed in ways we cannot calculate.

    Who is to say the end result would be any better, or more equitable? What would the distribution calculation look like?

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