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Wind-energy site could be leased off Virginia by year’s end

The Obama administration announced Monday that it could begin leasing sites off the coasts of Virginia and three other states for wind energy development by the end of the year.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar also announced that the federal government would spend $50.5 million over the next five years to fund research and development to support offshore wind energy.

“Today’s announcements represent major steps in our nation’s march toward a clean energy future that will help to capture the possibilities that offshore wind power offers our country and offers our economy,” Salazar said Monday morning at the Half Moone Cruise and Celebration Center in Norfolk.

The initiative aims to kick-start private development of offshore wind farms by offering locations and a framework for approving them. The goal is to avoid a controversy like the one that enveloped the Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound off Massachusetts, which has been caught in political and regulatory problems for a decade.

Eliminating another stumbling block to such offshore development, the departments of Energy and Interior worked with the Defense Department to identify locations that wouldn’t interfere with military operations and training, Salazar said.

The Virginia site is approximately 20 nautical miles off the coast of Virginia Beach and spans 165 square nautical miles.

A total of 746 square nautical miles has been identified for development off the coasts of Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey. Officials plan to reveal similar sites off the coasts of New England states such as Massachusetts and Rhode Island next month and locations off southern seaboard states this spring.

There’s a potential 94 gigawatts of wind energy off Virginia’s coast, just a tenth of which could power 3 million homes, Chu said.

Gov. Bob McDonnell issued a statement applauding the federal government’s quick timeline for leasing offshore sites but also cited the cost of such energy.

“Virginia stands ready to compete for the dollars the Department of Energy plans to invest in research and technology development needed to reduce the cost of offshore wind energy,” he said. “The high cost of offshore wind energy is currently one of the major barriers to utility scale development of this resource in this country.”

McDonnell is scheduled to attend a ribbon cutting Thursday in Chesapeake for the launch of an “offshore wind technology center,” a partnership between Northrop Grumman and Gamesa Technology Corp., a Spanish manufacturer of wind turbines.

The Department of Energy outlined three areas for research and development funding:

– Up to $25 million for development of the technology behind both wind turbines and the structures supporting them in the ocean;

– $7.5 million for development of a new wind turbine drivetrain aimed at making wind energy more cost effective;

– $18 million for market and environmental research.

Dominion Virginia Power plans to be among the companies vying to develop an offshore wind farm, said Jim Norvelle, a spokesman. The company already runs large onshore wind farms in West Virginia and Indiana.

“We’ve been interested in offshore for a while,” he said.

The company hasn’t settled on how large a farm it wants to build, but Norvelle said he expects it to be in the “hundreds of megawatts” range.

“Any new source of generation has a cost,” Norvelle said. “Our challenge as the leading energy provider in Virginia is making sure that any cost increase to accommodate new generation is reasonable.”

Environmental groups including the Sierra Club and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation applauded the initiative.

The announcement Monday comes four months after a Maryland-based transmission-line firm proposed building a $5 billion underwater electricity transmission line to serve wind turbine farms from New Jersey to Virginia. Trans-Elect Development Co. LLC’s proposal has the backing of Internet search giant Google Inc. and a New York-based investment firm.