US OKs offshore wind research facility off Virginia’s coast

RICHMOND, Va. — The development of offshore wind farms took another halting step forward Thursday with the federal approval of a research facility off Virginia’s coast to test wind turbines in a harsh open seas environment.

The decision clears the way for the construction of two 6-megawatt turbines 27 miles off Virginia Beach on the outer continental shelf, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Director Abigail Ross Hopper said in a statement. The agency approved a research lease with the state last year.

The twin turbines would generate enough electricity to power 3,000 homes, according to the statement.

“Data collected under this research lease will help us better understand the wind potential, weather and other conditions off of Virginia’s coast,” Ross Hopper said.

While offshore wind development has been in the planning stages for years off Massachusetts, the United States has no offshore wind farms, lagging far behind northern European nations.

In a statement, Gov. Terry McAuliffe said the approval of the offshore research center is an “important step in our mission to be the first state to install offshore wind turbines in federal waters.”

But even this incremental step in the development of ocean-worthy wind turbines has had its setbacks.

Last year, Dominion Resources Inc. announced that the bids on the construction of two 500-foot turbines had come in much higher than anticipated. The energy company said the bids had come back in the range of $375 million to $400 million, double the company’s estimate for the work.

Dominion has said it is reviewing new bids in hopes of bringing down the costs. As a result, the project’s start date has been moved back from 2017 to 2018.

“This is an important step in the approvals needed for offshore wind in Virginia,” Dominion spokesman David Botkins said in a statement. “We have essentially received a seal of approval from (the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management) on project design and implementation plan.”

Botkins said Dominion would outline its next step in April.

With a successful bid of $1.6 million In 2013, Dominion won the federal lease for nearly 113,000 acres offshore for the development of wind turbines. The leasing area has the potential to generate up to 2,000 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power up to 700,000 homes, Dominion has said.

Officials had to work with the Navy, which has a huge presence in waters off Virginia’s coast, and other interests to carve out a leasing area that wouldn’t interfere with military training and shipping lanes.

While clean energy advocates have accused Dominion of dragging its feet on wind energy, the U.S. is at a distinct disadvantage in the offshore wind sector. The country has no industrial base devoted to wind generation in challenging ocean environments, adding huge costs to the shipments of massive turbines and other components from European manufacturers.

The costs translate to higher rates for Dominion customers.

But proponents of offshore winds have attempted to make the case that Virginia is positioned to take the lead in a new energy sector. In addition to its warm water port and highly favorable winds offshore, the state has a huge shipbuilding infrastructure that could be repurposed for the manufacture of turbine blades, creating thousands of new jobs, they argue.

The clock is ticking, however, if Virginia wants to make good on McAuliffe’s quest to make the state a pioneer in wind power. Deepwater Wind, a Rhode Island company, is looking to launch the country’s first offshore wind farm off Block Island by the end of the year.

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Follow Steve Szkotak at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/steve-szkotak.

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