Earlier this week, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell announced that the state’s Marine Resources Commission had approved a single five-megawatt offshore wind turbine for the lower section of the Chesapeake Bay.
One year ago this week, the same commission had approved scientific studies to examine the feasibility of such a project.
The move is being hailed by the governor as a game-changer that will upend the decade long race for the first U.S. offshore wind project. Construction on the turbine is scheduled to be completed before the end of 2013.
In an official announcement, McDonnell’s office noted that the target date “would be before other offshore wind energy projects are slated to be built in other parts of the country. “
The turbine is being developed by Gamesa Energy USA and Huntingon Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding and will be connected to the grid. The project could be a significant boost for the prospects of an offshore wind manufacturing center in the Newport News area of Virginia.
So, where is the excitement?
“I don’t think it really signals anything,” said Beth Kemler, Virginia State Director for the decidedly pro-offshore wind Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “This turbine has been in the works for years, this is just the announcement that a state agency approved construction at the site.”
Kemler suggested that McDonnell might be more excited about developing an offshore wind manufacturing base than about developing large-scale projects.
“We would hope to see this much enthusiasm for deploying utility scale offshore wind,” she said.
The lack of enthusiasm was not limited to Kemler. Congressman Rob Wittman represents Newport News and his district runs along the Chesapeake Bay. He has been a supporter of offshore wind development, telling Offshore Wind Wire last year that it is a an “important component” of the country’s energy future. His office, however, declined several opportunities to comment on the new turbine.
The project might be seen as too small to generate much excitement. Offshore wind industry observers might have heard too many promises of construction next year, whichever year that happens to be.
But this project looks different. Gamesa has the resources to make the project a reality. The turbine has backing from a Republican governor, removing the possibility that this becomes a partisan point of contention.
Importantly, no anti-offshore wind group has emerged in southern Virginia. Perhaps because of the size of the project, but more likely because of the economic opportunity that this industry represents.
“This wind turbine prototype will bring jobs, jobs and more jobs, and it positions Virginia to be a leader in clean energy technology,” said Doug Domenech, Virginia’s Secretary of Natural Resources.
For a decade the offshore wind industry has labored under the fact that there are no projects in US waters. After the first project is in the water, it will be easier to build the second. And what if that first project is a single turbine? Kemler, who is yearning for utility scale offshore wind near Virginia, acknowledged that a single turbine is a step in the right direction.
“Anything that helps move the momentum forward for offshore wind in U.S. waters is a good thing,” she said. “Anything that helps make this more real for Americans – the public or legislators – is a good thing.”