ATLANTIC OCEAN, NEAR VIRGINIA BEACH – The boat had just lost sight of land when two delicate shapes appeared on the horizon, like needles sprouting from the sea. As the boat got closer, they seemed to grow – and grow – until they towered above passing container ships.
Two wind turbines now rise higher than the Washington Monument off the coast of Virginia Beach, $300 million down payments on what state officials wager will be a new industry and a source of clean energy for the future.
The last 253-foot blade was attached to one of the turbines Friday by contractors for Dominion Energy, Virginia’s biggest utility and the owner of the project. On Monday, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed laws creating a state Office of Offshore Wind and setting a mandate for 5,200 megawatts of offshore wind energy by 2034.
When the turbines start spinning next month , they’ll be the proof of concept for what’s expected to be the biggest wind farm in federal waters in the United States – more than 180 such turbines on this patch of ocean 27 miles offshore should be in operation by 2026.
“Virginia has a chance to be one of the leaders . . . in renewable energy,” Northam said.
Environmental advocates have hailed the development, which is also enshrined in an omnibus energy bill passed this year that commits the state to carbon-free power by 2045.
But some caution that the project exposes consumers to enormous potential costs. Dominion’s status as a regulated monopoly allows it to make guaranteed profits, and the General Assembly has ordered regulators to regard wind energy as “in the public interest” – limiting their ability to force the utility to cut costs or issue customer rebates.
“We will continue to be vigilant in oversight of the project going forward so that unnecessary costs will not be passed on to the consumers,” said Del. Jerrauld C. “Jay” Jones (D-Norfolk), one of the General Assembly’s leading skeptics of Dominion’s power and reach.
At the same time, Jones said he welcomes the jobs that could be created by the wind farm, which is estimated to cost $8 billion or more when completed.
“It’s a way to diversify our economy,” he said, adding that the Hampton Roads region is overly dependent on the military.
State officials say the project can make Virginia a hub for the offshore wind energy industry, which the International Energy Agency has projected could grow to be worth $1 trillion a year. China leads the way in capacity, and Europe drives the technology, but the U.S. market is beginning to wake up. Rhode Island has five turbines in state waters, and about half a dozen other states are pursuing projects, including Maryland.
Northam has backed a $350 million effort to make the Port of Virginia the deepest on the East Coast, partly to enable it to become a staging area for assembling the gigantic wind turbines. That could lure manufacturers to locate there, he said, and ultimately reduce costs for projects up and down the coast.
The massive towers now installed off Virginia Beach were assembled in Nova Scotia and brought down on a special ship that held them vertically. Driven into the sea floor like nails, the structures now stand 620 feet above the waves. The Washington Monument, by contrast, is 555 feet tall.
On Monday it took a tour boat five hours round trip to visit the towers, which occupy a 112,800-acre site Dominion leases from the federal government. Linked to shore by undersea cables, the turbines can generate power for 3,000 homes.
“This is just an extremely important first step for what’s going to be an important wind development for us and for the country,” said Robert M. “Bob” Blue, Dominion executive vice president and co-chief operating officer.
The project is a high-profile part of Dominion’s efforts to rebrand itself as a company committed to green energy. Long known for its deep ties to state government, Dominion has come under increasing fire in recent years for both its outsize influence and legacy coal plants. The company helped shape the omnibus energy bill, which set closeout dates for those plants.
Dominion’s backing of a major natural gas pipeline across some of Virginia’s most scenic terrain has attracted especially fierce criticism, and that project – the Atlantic Coast Pipeline – remains mired in court challenges despite a recent ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that allows it to tunnel under the Appalachian Trail.
Asked how he could reconcile the pipeline with the company’s new green image, Blue said both are important to create a “diverse” fuel supply.
“As great as this project is,” he said, the boat bobbing near one of the turbines, “these turbines generate electricity when the wind blows – about 45 percent of the time.” Natural gas, he said, “allows us to continue to be reliable.”
Northam and several staffers posed for photos near the turbines. The governor’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, who visited a Danish offshore wind farm during a trade mission last year, explained what they were looking at: the interior where work crews can climb all the way to the top, the systems room that “looks like the Death Star,” the way balsa wood is used in the impossibly delicate blades.
After months of coping with the state’s coronavirus pandemic and responding to the public outcry over policy violence against African Americans, Northam seemed energized by spending a sunny day on the water – even though everyone on the boat wore face coverings to guard against possible infection.
The tour was a “win-win,” said Northam, who grew up working on the water along the nearby Eastern Shore. Not only will the project generate clean energy and jobs, he said, but the rocky aprons at the base of the towers will attract something else: fish.
Blue cautioned him that boats can’t get too close. “As long as we can get this close, we’ll be in good shape,” Northam said.