November 1, 2011

Renewable wind energy in Virginia?

Brodie Mountain, Massachusetts wind farm
Promises, promises?

Americans now have a full twelve months of campaigning before us, and a lot of hot air to anticipate. Much of it will be aimed at renewable energy, the alternative to fossil fuels. Thanks to Solyndra’s bankruptcy woes, many fear that wind industry financial problems may be just around the corner too.

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell got our hopes up shortly after he took office in 2010 by describing Virginia as “the Energy Capital of the East Coast,” and putting Virginia squarely into the efforts of the Atlantic Offshore Wind Energy Consortium. It looked like we truly might attain 20 percent of our needed electricity by 2020 by harnessing our wind and creating a quarter-million jobs in the process. Oops, big recession arrived.

Governor McDonnell now proclaims November as “Job Creator Appreciation Month.” Although lots of promises have been made, little has been accomplished to date in the wind industry in Virginia, and the offshore winds are being wasted.

A few weeks ago, Poseidon Atlantic LLC announced plans to develop, in the second half of 2012, a site on the Eastern Shore to test prototype offshore wind turbines on the ground before tackling their operation offshore. Makes sense to get it right early on. Also sounds like jobs. Virginia Lt. Governor Bill Bolling says only 25 jobs in the next two years at this test site, but 5000 over the long haul.

But first things first. Companies need to build the parts for these wind farms. The Spanish firm Gamesa and Newport News-based Huntington Ingalls Industries employ about 80 at their new Offshore Wind Technology Center in nearby Chesapeake where they are building a 5-megawatt prototype wind turbine. They hope to place it off Cape Charles in late 2012.

Transporting these humongous turbines (I’ve seen some up close in Massachusetts) is a mammoth job. So it makes sense to manufacture the turbines (some as high as 75 feet) close by the testing site. More jobs for Virginians?

Fugro, the world’s largest collector of wind data, plans to begin gathering information about our offshore winds within the next few months. More jobs?

The bigger goal is to tie the turbines into the electricity grid owned by Old Dominion Electric Cooperative. That’s the same company that has not given up building the largest coal-burning power plant in Virginia, not so far away from me in the small town of Dendron, Virginia. That would also mean more jobs, but not the kind I want. I prefer my air minus mercury and other particulates. I saw what our sailboat docked off the York River looked like before the coal-burning plant there ceased operation.

Google is part of a consortium that plans to develop underwater transmission lines from Virginia to New Jersey. Installation of those lines should also mean more jobs, not to mention the maintenance of this infrastructure.

More recently, Charlottesville-based Apex Wind Energy was one of two companies to submit an unsolicited bid to get something going off Virginia’s coastline. Another positive action, and during a tense economic climate.

Virginia joins other southern states on this revealing map from the American Wind Energy Association that shows the current operating wind energy in the U.S..

The bottom line is that Virginia has the potential for LOTS of manufacturing, logistics, operations and maintenance jobs in the wind energy business. 2012 could be a green and windy year. Virginia could be the hotbed for this emerging industry. Or it could be a lot of hot air. Election year is a tough time to get politics out of the air and make real progress that’s good for all Americans.