State regulators have approved scientific surveys for a test project that aims to build one of the first offshore wind turbines in the United States, in waters at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to allow scientists working for Gamesa Energy USA LLC to determine if conditions are ripe for construction of a single, prototype windmill that would generate as much as 5 megawatts of electricity in waters about 3 miles west of Cape Charles on the Eastern Shore.
If built there, the turbine would become a landmark and gateway to the Chesapeake Bay, visible from the lower Eastern Shore, to arriving ships and boats and to motorists crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.
“I think it’d be a really cool sight,” said John Daniel, a Richmond attorney hired by Gamesa to shepherd the pilot project through the state’s regulatory wringer.
Gamesa is a Spanish wind-turbine company that recently opened offices in Chesapeake in partnership with Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding. As part of their Virginia experiments, the partners also want to set a windmill on land, at Cape Charles Harbor, as a way to test the viability of their products in a marine environment, said Todd Hopper, a Gamesa project manager.
“We’re kind of in uncharted territory, trying to put something in the water for the first time in the United States,” Hopper said.
Before that can happen, though, scientists will sample bottom materials, study wave patterns and currents, analyze migratory bird populations, and make small borings in a 1.2-square-mile research zone off Cape Charles. The field work is expected to begin next month.
If the site proves suitable, a large, spinning turbine could be erected in the Bay and be operational by next summer, Daniel said.
The company also would run a transmission line from the turbine to Cape Charles, where generated electricity could be housed and sold as green energy for the next 25 years or so, Hopper said.
Gamesa shifted its plans slightly to appease concerns from the Virginia Pilot Association and the Virginia Maritime Association, organizations that represent shipping interests. Ships often use the study area for protection against storms or to anchor while waiting to call on the ports of Hampton Roads.
An artificial fishing reef also is located near the work site and is frequented by fishermen. Anglers on Tuesday did not oppose the project, which focuses only on the science and geology of the area.
Gamesa would have to come back to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to seek approval to actually build the turbine.
The commission’s green light Tuesday was a small but symbolic first step toward harnessing what experts have said are strong, consistent winds blowing off the Virginia coast.
State energy giant Dominion Virginia Power has said it might be interested in investing in an offshore wind farm, and Gov. Bob McDonnell has championed the Virginia coastline as a way to create jobs and produce clean, renewable energy. The Navy, too, has expressed an interest in tying into electricity generated from offshore wind.
There are no operational, offshore windmills in the United States today, though there are plenty in Europe.
After a lengthy battle, plans for the first offshore farm were recently approved near Nantucket Island off the coast of Massachusetts, and there are projects in the works off Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey.
On Tuesday, there was little debate or controversy about allowing scientific work off Cape Charles to move forward, especially after Gamesa agreed to move its research zone slightly closer to land, into more shallow water. The commission voted 8-0 for the project.
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