Credit: Danish Wind Industry Association / Creative Commons

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Virginia has been slow to dip its toe into offshore wind energy, but advocates predict the industry is primed for a growth spurt over the next decade.

The Sierra Club is urging the state to pursue 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind power capacity by 2030. A long-awaited mix of infrastructure, political support and supply chain potential makes that target realistic, advocates say.

“Before, people thought it was science fiction or too expensive,” said Eileen Woll, offshore energy program director for the club’s Virginia chapter. “What’s happening now is our perfect storm.”

Among the developments fueling her group’s optimism:

  • Growing support from the governor and legislature, which adopted a law this year declaring up to 5,000 megawatts of wind power to be “in the public interest.”
  • Confirmation that the Hampton Roads region has the shipping channels, navigational flexibility, port infrastructure and maritime workforce to support the industry.
  • The state seeking bids from contractors poised to attract an offshore wind supply chain and service industry.

Advocates are hopeful that a 12-megawatt project by Dominion Energy and Danish wind developer Orsted Energy might be the test case the state needs to show others that offshore wind is feasible in the state. The on-again, off-again experiment is now set to come online by 2020.

“We’re bullish on offshore wind because it’s the best and greatest resource we have for confronting the climate crisis,” said Woll, who has been a wind energy advocate since 2009.

That said, Virginia wind boosters will still need to overcome a traditionally conservative state regulatory board, as well as competition from other states.

Political winds

Part of Virginia’s wind momentum is due to Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, elected last year, piggybacking on a green trend initiated by his predecessor and fellow Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Both chambers now have slimmer Republican majorities, and Northam, a doctor, has proven adept at bipartisan negotiating.

A sweeping law that kicks in July 1 spells out that it is in the public interest for utilities to install 5,000 MW of wind and solar by 2028. The same legislation designates a demonstration offshore wind project of up to 16 MW to be in the public interest.

By including a 10-year window and public interest language in the measure, the General Assembly sent strong and clear signals that these goals are public policy priorities.

Right place, right pieces

Liz Burdock, executive director of the Business Network for Offshore Wind, has carefully reviewed the series of reports that herald Virginia’s port infrastructure and geography as an ideal backbone for offshore wind. BVG Associates completed the research for the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.

“Virginia has great assets,” Burdock said, adding that she could envision the Hampton Roads area evolving into a hub for fabricating steel turbine foundations.

Her nonprofit, founded in 2012, focuses on beefing up the U.S. supply chain up and down the East Coast. The group had its first big success in 2013 when the Maryland legislature passed an offshore wind bill. She is now working in tandem with the Sierra Club to tout wind’s benefits to Virginia’s economy.

“In each state, we always partner with environmental groups,” Burdock said. “We complement their environmental message and education by making sure businesses understand what the economic benefits of offshore wind are.”

In Virginia, 15 businesses have joined her network’s nascent efforts. They range from General Electric to a one-man ship repair operation.

Adding offshore wind to Virginia’s mix would diversify an economy that has traditionally been tied heavily to the federal government.

“One state isn’t going to get an entire supply chain, so every state has to do its part,” Burdock says. “Overall, you need to be adding one or two gigawatts each year to be attractive to industry. We need to be talking about scale and long-term commitment so there’s a consistent pipeline, just like Europe has done.”

A test project

In Virginia, Dominion’s test project, with two 6 MW wind turbines on 2,135 marine acres leased by the state, could be the gateway to big wind in the Southeast, just as the 30 MW Block Island experiment has proved to be for the Northeast.

However, compared to the Northeast, offshore wind in Virginia is off to a slow start for several reasons. The state has never had a mandatory renewable portfolio standard nor has it offered renewable energy tax credits.

Also, its regulatory body, the State Corporation Commission, has traditionally taken a very conservative stance with renewable technology, claiming its higher costs would harm ratepayers. But that could change as financial analysts are now confirming that offshore wind can compete with natural gas as turbines grow in size.

Dominion spokesman David Botkins said he agrees that “Virginia is uniquely positioned to be a leader in offshore wind development,” but he noted that uncertainty remains.

“The … test project will give us … valuable information that could lead to a larger build-out, if all the right conditions are met,” Botkins said. “The project plans are still very much in its infancy.”

Dominion has leased 112,800 acres offshore Virginia from the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The Sierra Club’s Woll says that’s prime territory for 2,000 MW of wind. It is one of the 11 still-active leases of the original 13 BOEM has auctioned off along the East Coast since 2010.

“We don’t want the (test project) to be a one-off and then have Dominion go back to sleep for 20 years,” Woll said. “To get there, we have to start now. We have to have a plan to build up our ports and put our ducks in a row.”

Harrison Godfrey, executive director of the Virginia Advanced Energy Economy, said his organization backs renewables across the board, but hasn’t yet settled on a specific number of megawatts for wind. Orsted is among the business group’s 25-plus members in Virginia.

“The state and region that decides to lead on offshore wind will enjoy the gains of providing the supply chain and jobs,” he said. One of his fears is that the state will move too slowly and lose out on a growth opportunity for which it is well suited.

“The race is on,” Godfrey  said, “and to the victor go the spoils.”

Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" will be published by Bancroft Press in September 2020.