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Show caution: Wind-energy development offshore shouldn’t require soaking Virginia taxpayers

A recent report by the National Wildlife Federation outlines the possibility Virginia could be a leader in the production of wind energy. It extolls the potential financial windfall that could result should the commonwealth responsibly harness its natural resources, pointing to offshore wind farms in Great Britain as a model for our coast.

Dominion Energy is advancing plans for erecting test turbines in the Atlantic Ocean by 2017, and we admit to being interested in the notion of Virginia being a national pioneer for clean energy. But our enthusiasm is somewhat diminished by the reality that success elsewhere has only come thanks to the massive infusion of public money.

If private industry can make wind energy successful in Virginia – if it can deliver on all its promises to create jobs, lower power bills and otherwise serve as a treasure chest for the commonwealth – then we are all too happy to share in those riches. But we are wary of government offering huge public subsidies to private business in order to spearhead such an initiative.

According to its “Catching the Wind” report, the National Wildlife Federation says Virginia is in the center of an energy “gold mine” on the East Coast.

Wind is a consistently available resource offshore, according to the report, and it can be accessed easily with commercially available technology. Since power generation would occur close to Hampton Roads, it could help offset the energy demands of a major population center.

In an effort to appeal to detractors, the report outlines the potential economic benefits of developing clean energy. It points to Europe as an example of how the industry helps lower consumer bills while creating new jobs, citing the 58,000 jobs created in 10 countries as a result of wind production.

The National Wildlife Federation sees Virginia as a place where the pursuit of clean energy could make tremendous strides. While it says Massachusetts and Rhode Island are leading the way, progress in the commonwealth inspires hope it could be the next addition to the wind-energy movement.

Dominion Energy must believe in the prospect of wind being a viable energy alternative. It is building two 6-megawatt wind turbines about 27 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach. They are expected to begin operations in 2017 and could generate enough energy to power 3,000 homes.

We are not at all opposed to the development on renewable fuel sources here in Virginia, and in Hampton Roads specifically. If the clean-energy industry could truly deliver on its promises then we would be delighted to lend it our full-throated support.

But we know, from evidence and experience, how this is likely to proceed.

In Great Britain, wind energy only comes as a result of substantial public investment. A 2013 report by the Renewable Energy Foundation, a think tank critical of wind farms’ cost, calculated the public subsidy for wind turbine owners to be £1.2 billion (about $2.04 billion) in 2012.

Since the industry employs only 12,000, that comes to roughly £100,000 ($170,000) per job. The cost of wind farms also added about £47 (about $80) to the average household’s cost of living.

We are seeing a similar level of taxpayer-funded support developing here. Dominion’s project comes thanks to some $51 million from the U.S. Department of Energy, and Washington is making that type of investment in wind farms off the coast of several other coastal states.

In June, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed an executive order creating a Virginia Energy Council and directing it to develop a commonwealth energy plan by Oct. 1. The governor wants a blueprint that accelerates the pursuit of clean energy as a way of creating new jobs. We will be interested to see the specifics of that plan, especially the price tag.

Because it may be that this is the wave of the future, and that Virginia can ride the wind to complete energy independence. More likely, though, is that taxpayers will see their money go to projects that do not lower consumer prices, do not create jobs and only serve to make power companies richer.

And if that’s the case, Virginia would be better off letting other states take the lead on wind.