Is Offshore Wind In Virginia’s Future?

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of the Sierra Club. Author credit goes to Ivy Main.

The past couple of years have been tough ones for the offshore wind industry, which is still struggling to launch. The recession has made states reluctant to invest, even when the payoff looks huge. Cheap natural gas is hurting the market for renewable energy just as wind and solar have started hitting their stride. Congressional dysfunction has prevented the renewal of critical tax credits that the wind industry still needs to compete.

A few other states are making fitful progress toward building offshore wind farms, but they have conditions Virginia doesn’t: higher energy prices that make offshore wind more competitive with fossil fuels, renewable energy standards that push utilities to become buyers for the electricity, and congested transmission grids that favor local generation.

offshore wind, moray firth

image via Shutterstock

But of course, Virginia has its own advantages, including possibly the best wind resources in the mid-Atlantic, skilled workers, and extremely competitive port facilities. And the enthusiasm of our legislators and public for the idea of offshore wind matches that of any state.

At the same time, though, our governor and our major utility give decidedly mixed signals, extolling our offshore wind potential at one moment, and in the next opining that no one would actually want to pay for it. And yet Dominion Power hopes to buy up all the Virginia-area offshore wind leases that are offered for bid this fall. So what gives with Dominion and offshore wind?

One answer comes from Guy Chapman, Dominion’s Director of Renewable Energy Research and Program Development, who spoke at a wind conference held at James Madison University this past June. He said that right now with natural gas so cheap, the company doesn’t expect to build any wind at all, on land or at sea. But if conditions improve, the company wants to be in a position to change its mind, and that means buying up the offshore leases and doing site surveys, technical and environmental studies, and other planning that will add up to $40 or 50 million. Dominion would rather lose the money than be locked out of a potential new growth area.What this means for the rest of us is that when we read somewhere that Dominion has “plans” for offshore wind, or that it has two wind farms in Virginia’s mountains “under development,” we should realize it defines those terms to mean, “Don’t hold your breath, honey.”

This presents something of a puzzle for decision-makers at the federal Department of Interior. If they let Dominion buy up the leases for the whole Virginia wind energy area, knowing the company isn’t actually planning to build a wind farm, then they aren’t advancing the cause of offshore wind any. By contrast, the other bidders include companies like Apex Wind and Fishermen’s Energy that make their money by building wind farms, so they are highly motivated to follow through.

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