Virginia offshore wind development efforts are running into concerns about protecting endangered whales.
The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered whale species on the planet, the Virginia Conservation Network’s Chelsea Harnish told the Virginia Offshore Wind Development Authority Wednesday.
“The wind area and the whale migration patterns completely overlap,” Harnish said. “Right whales pose one of the major conservation problems affecting East Coast offshore wind development.”
Endangered right whales – which number perhaps 400 to 500 in total – should not endanger the development of Dominion Virginia Power’s wind energy area off the Virginia coast, the company said. And the Richmond-based utility does not believe building the offshore wind energy development will affect the whales.
The Virginia Conservation Network wants to minimize activities involved in the preliminary studies of the offshore site – including driving pilings for test platforms – from late November toward the end March when the whales are likely to be present and improve protections at other times.
The proposal to limit activities would affect only the site assessment and characterization work, Harnish said, but not the construction and operation of the wind farm.
“What’s the difference between pile driving for (meteorological) towers and pile driving for turbine construction?,” said Bob Matthias, the Offshore Wind Development Authority’s chairman. “When you have a multibillion-dollar activity, it’s hard to shut down” for months at a time.
“We’re happy to talk” with environmental groups, said Mary C. Doswell, Dominion Resources Inc.’s senior vice president for alternative energy solutions, though she noted, “we can’t overlook the costs of compliance.”
The noise from driving piles for wind energy research platforms “could increase stress levels for the whales,” said Aaron N. Rice with Cornell University’s Bioacoustics Research Program, which has studied the right whales in the Virginia offshore lease area for a year. “Mortality isn’t the concern.”
With a bid of $1.6 million, Dominion Virginia Power won the right to develop the first wind energy farm off the Virginia coast in a federal lease auction Sept. 4. Dominion Resources is Dominion Virginia Power’s parent company.
Fully developed, the 112,799-acre lease could generate 2,000 megawatts of electricity. That electricity would be enough energy to power more than 700,000 homes, the federal government said. Dominion Virginia Power puts the number at about 500,000 residences.
The wind energy area is in the Atlantic Ocean about 27 miles from the Virginia Beach shoreline.
The majority of the western North Atlantic right whale population range from wintering and calving areas in coastal waters off the southeastern U.S. to summer feeding and nursery grounds in New England waters and north to Canada’s Bay of Fundy and Scotian Shelf.
Mature North Atlantic right whales weigh up to 70 tons and reach about 50 feet in length, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The right whale population appears to be growing slightly, NOAA said: “However, North Atlantic right whales remain critically endangered.”
The most common human causes of serious injury and death for right whales are ship collisions and entanglement in fishing gear, the federal agency said. Additional threats include habitat degradation, contaminants, climate and ecosystem change, disturbance from whale-watching activities, and noise from industrial activities.
To reduce the likelihood of whale deaths and injuries from ship collisions, federal regulations require vessels 65 feet or longer to travel at 11.5 miles an hour or less in certain locations along the U.S. East Coast at some times of year.
That speed restriction might cripple efforts to gather data needed to plan for the offshore wind energy generation facility, said George Hagerman with the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium.
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