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Unions to pressure lawmakers for offshore wind in Virginia

NEWPORT NEWS – Labor leaders said Tuesday they will press elected officials and energy companies to move quicker in developing wind power off Virginia’s coast.

“We believe that we need to invest in renewable energy in Virginia,” said Thomas Bell, business manager for Ironworkers Union Local 79 in Norfolk.

One of several union leaders to speak at United Steelworkers Local 8888 in Newport News, Bell said building wind farms off the Atlantic coast will help restart the nation’s ailing manufacturing sector by generating thousands of good-paying jobs.

Wind power also will reduce pollution and enhance national security by lessening U.S. dependency on foreign oil, said Glen Besa, director of the Virginia branch of the Sierra Club, which helped organize the event.

Two energy companies made unsolicited bids to the federal government to develop wind farms off Virginia’s coast. But they remain years away as regulators work with the Department of Defense, NASA, the shipping industry and other groups to identify where to place the turbines.

Chelsea Harnish, Virginia policy coordinator for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said Virginia leaders and the state’s dominant utility company, Dominion Resources, could do more to promote offshore wind. For example, the state could mandate that a percentage of its energy come from renewable sources, she said.

Dominion is studying various aspects of offshore wind energy, including building an underwater transmission line from Virginia Beach into the ocean. But both offshore and land-based wind projects are challenged by costs and uncertain federal regulation, Jim Norvelle, a Dominion spokesman, said in an email.

A Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium study found that a 3,200-megawatt offshore wind farm could produce 10 percent of the state’s power demand and create thousands of jobs. It also said that offshore wind projects are more expensive to build compared to natural gas and coal-fired power plants.

The study noted, however, that the difference in cost could be reduced if parts are manufactured in Virginia. At least one company, Spanish energy giant Gamesa Technology Corp., has moved to Hampton Roads; it has an engineering facility in Chesapeake where workers are designing turbines.

In the meantime, union leaders said they will lobby politicians to prompt Dominion and other energy companies to invest in offshore wind and other renewable energy projects.

“We can put pressure on them through our legislators,” said Bill Harriday, staff representative of United Steelworkers.