Wind Turbine Offshore of Virginia May Be First Up in U.S.

The project is slated for completion in 2013 and would generate jobs and clean energy for the Old Dominion State.

by / April 3, 2012

Virginia has approved construction of a single wind energy turbine that if completed on schedule, may be the first offshore wind energy project built in the United States.

The wind turbine will stand 479 feet tall and be located in Virginia’s lower Chesapeake Bay, three miles off the coast of Cape Charles, Va., in state-owned waters. The turbine should be up by late 2013, which would be in advance of other offshore wind projects in the U.S., according to a statement released by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s office.

When finished, the wind turbine will sit in 53 feet of water, with a linear power cable spanning 15,219 linear feet buried six feet below the ocean floor. The cable will connect the turbine to the Cape Charles electrical grid through property owned by the Bay Coastal Railroad in Cape Charles Harbor.

Gamesa Energy USA is partnering with Newport News Shipbuilding to develop and test its G11X prototype turbine. The results from the prototype will aid Gamesa in preparing the technology for commercial deployment in 2015.

Although the turbine is expected to generate only five megawatts of power — by comparison the two nuclear reactors of the North Anna Nuclear Generating Station in Louisa County, Va., each produce 1,500 megawatts — state officials hope the project will further McDonnell’s goal to make Virginia the “energy capital of the East Coast.”

In an interview with Government Technology, Maureen Matsen, deputy secretary of natural resources and McDonnell’s senior energy adviser, said it’s hard to tell what the tangible benefits to the state will be before the project actually starts. She believes, however, that the immediate gains will consist of jobs in the construction and development fields.

“We know, generally, that constructing an offshore wind turbine requires specialized labor, equipment and materials, and we expect many of them will come from our local workforce, businesses and industries,” Matsen said.

While the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) — which regulates the state’s coastal ecosystems and fisheries — has signed off on the offshore wind turbine, the project still needs approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and review by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Public Unconcerned?

The VMRC conducted a public interest review of the project and found that it will not impact commercial or recreational activities off the Virginia coastline, according to a press release. Scott Harper of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper also reported that there was no opposition to the project from the public, which surprised some commission members given that this is the first turbine proposal considered for building in state waters.

Other states haven’t been as lucky. For example, Massachusetts has been trying to get its $2.6 billion Cape Wind power project off the ground for a decade. The proposal, which will create a wind farm of 130 wind turbines spread across 24 square miles in the Nantucket Sound, has suffered numerous delays, stemming from permitting requirements and lawsuits from environmental groups.

The Massachusetts project was recently green-lighted by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. It needed federal approval, as it sits in federal waters about five miles off the south coast of Cape Cod.

Since the Virginia project sits in state-controlled waters, three miles off the coast, the process had less red tape. But Gamesa had to agree to various monetary and environmental stipulations to gain approval to construct the turbine. Those included:

  • posting of a bond or letter of credit totaling at least $2.1 million to remove the wind turbine structure if it is decommissioned;
  • one-time payment of $52,667 for use of the Virginia-owned water bottom; and
  • a comprehensive scientific study of the turbine’s underwater acoustical potential impact on marine life under a variety of wind and weather conditions.

Matsen said the state is proud of the way it was able to bring together business and political groups to streamline the permitting process for the Gamesa wind energy turbine project. But the state was cognizant of the hurdles faced in New England, and Matsen believes acceptance from the community was one of the reasons Gamesa chose Cape Charles as its starting point.

“As with land-based wind projects and certainly as folks in Massachusetts have learned, offshore wind, particularly in state waters — which means you’re close to the shore — faces some NIMBY [not in my backyard] pushback that can’t be discounted or ignored,” Matsen said.

Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.