Prospects for wind turbines churning out clean energy off the mid-Atlantic coast got brighter Thursday when federal officials unveiled safe areas where energy companies might build wind farms off Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey.
The U.S. Department of the Interior said it has completed environmental studies in these zones in the Atlantic Ocean, finding them clear of significant conflicts with fishing interests, shipping traffic, military training and marine life, including whales, dolphins and migratory birds.
Virginia’s designated area encompasses 112,799 acres of open water, located due east of the Virginia Beach resort strip. Would-be wind developers now are free to inform federal officials of their interest in setting wind turbines on leasable space between 23.5 nautical miles and 36.5 miles from shore.
Being that far away, any future spinning turbines would not be visible from local beaches.
Gov. Bob McDonnell and environmentalists applauded the announcement, made Thursday morning in Baltimore after some testy months of state officials and clean-energy advocates pushing federal regulators to move faster.
McDonnell, a Republican who campaigned for offshore wind, and environmental groups described the moves as important steps toward accelerating development of wind farms capable of sending electricity to shore for use across the state.
“Offshore wind power has the potential to create hundreds of new manufacturing jobs in Hampton Roads,” said Nathan Lott, executive director of the Virginia Conservation Network. “Wind developers deserve a clarity and timeliness in leasing and permitting. So this announcement is a very welcome step forward.”
Not that wind turbines will soon appear beyond the Virginia Beach horizon.
Officials said it still could be years before an offshore wind farm is actually built off the coast, a project that will require hundreds of millions of investment dollars, underwater transmission cables and government permits to move forward.
Virginia’s wind area originally was proposed by a state task force to be bigger and closer to shore. But potential conflicts with shipping channels and military training pushed the government to winnow the final zone, which is broken into leasable blocks of open water that companies can bid for.
Dominion Virginia Power said it is interested in building as many as 400 wind turbines in the Atlantic.
“If everything aligns and it makes good sense and we have our regulators on board, yes, we would be moving forward on a wind farm,” Mary Doswell, Dominion’s senior vice president for alternative energy solutions, said Thursday. “We are in a good position to do this and pull all of it together.”
Also Thursday, the Interior Department released draft forms that wind developers can fill out to start the permitting process. Combined with the designated areas and environmental studies, the forms are aimed at shortening what still could be a long and tedious paper trail.
There are no offshore wind farms operating in the United States today. Only one project, off Nantucket Island in Massachusetts, has been permitted. Others working their way through the regulatory wringer have run into financial problems and setbacks.
Countries including Great Britain, China, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany have farms producing electricity today.
Two unsolicited bids from Virginia entrepreneurs were offered to federal regulators two years ago, both in areas closer to shore and outside the designated zone announced Thursday. No decision has been announced on their fate.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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