Offshore, Project Development, Wind Power

Virginia Offshore Wind Turbine Positioned to be First in U.S.

The American offshore wind market, which has yet to install a turbine anywhere in coastal waters, took a big step forward this week with state approval of a single 5-megawatt (MW) prototype off the coast of Virginia.

If it clears federal approval, the 479-foot tall Gamesa turbine will sit in 53 feet of water about three miles off Cape Charles in the lower Chesapeake Bay. Construction is expected to be completed by the end of 2013, meaning it could be in the water well ahead of Deepwater Wind’s project off the coast of Rhode Island or Cape Wind’s giant installation off Massachusetts in Nantucket Sound. First, the project will need approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and review by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The prototype is expected to last more than 20 years, and it will be attached by a submarine cable system buried at least six feet below the seabed with a 100-year expected lifespan. But if Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, has his way, two decades from now it will be just one of many turbines sitting off the coast of Virginia. And by then he envisions the state as the East Coast’s leader in energy. Offshore wind figures prominently into that long-term vision.

“This is an important next step in developing all of Virginia’s domestic energy resources to help power our nation’s economy and puts Virginia at the forefront of clean energy technology development,’ said McDonnell in a released statement. “This step forward holds tremendous potential for jobs and for economic development here in the future. Virginia’s unique and efficient permitting process adopted for small energy projects like this one was a critical factor in Gamesa’s choice of Virginia as the location for this U.S. wind energy operation, and today we see the fruit of these proactive policies.”

Gamesa is using the project to advance its G11X turbine, which is designed specifically for offshore deployment. The company has also entered into a partnership with Huntingon Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding, which will help it develop and test new offshore technologies. The turbine could enter the commercial market by 2015.

While the amount of energy produced by the turbine will be relatively small, many in the industry are seeing the approval as a sign that America’s offshore market will soon have a tangible example of its technology. The hope is that will spur more investor confidence and greater acceptance at the state level, especially along the Atlantic coast.

For Virginia, McDonnell is clearly trying to position his state by being the first in the water. The state boasts a strong manufacturing and industrial base along its coastal regions, so it could easily transition toward being a leader in offshore building and installation.

“This is an exciting project,” said Jack Travelstead, acting commissioner of the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences. “This will bring jobs, energy, important new scientific information, and enhanced fishing opportunities for recreational anglers.”

The interest in offshore wind extends beyond those in state offices. Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest utility, told federal regulators in mid-March that it is interested in obtaining leases for all 113,000 acres being opened up for offshore wind development. The area, about 24 miles off the Virginia coast, is estimated to hold up to two gigawatts of offshore wind energy potential.

The company has been involved in offshore wind studies since 2010, and it has completed two transmission studies that detail challenges faced with bringing the electricity back to population centers. According to the company, “one study concluded that Virginia has an advantage compared to many states because it has the capability to interconnect large scale wind generation facilities with the existing grid in Virginia Beach, and the other found cost savings were possible by building the wind facility in phases with a potential for standardization of offshore transmission infrastructure.”