The Northam administration wants a ‘prominent role’ for Virginia in offshore wind. Can they pull it off?

October 22, 2018 6:05 am

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Virginia is looking to assume a “prominent role” in the developing U.S. East Coast offshore wind industry, in large part by collaborating with neighboring states.

That was the message Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy Director John Warren brought to the two-day American Wind Energy Association offshore wind conference last week in Washington, D.C. The conference drew more than 1,000 participants, including state and federal officials, developers and supply chain businesses.

John Warren, director of the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, was at a conference in Washington last week to try to position Virginia to take advantage of growth in offshore wind. (Ivy Main, for the Virginia Mercury)

Warren was there for both days and participated in a panel discussion about projects in several East Coast states. He used the opportunity to talk about DMME’s outreach to other states, including discussions with officials from Maryland and North Carolina, who had provided “positive feedback” for the collaboration initiative.

He believes the industry will benefit from states acting as a “cluster” to “develop supply chain strategies that will result in a cost-effective buildout.”

In addition to our neighbors to the North and South, Warren told me he was talking with officials from other states who were present at the conference.

“Inclusivity is the name of the game,” he said.  

Many of the conference sessions carried the same theme, a sign that state officials and developers are digging into the logistical complexities of creating a massive new industry from scratch.

At a previous AWEA conference a few years ago, states seemed to imagine themselves in a winner-take-all race to the water, scrambling to get projects approved in order to capture the jobs and economic development opportunities before other states did.

Not this year.

With so many new projects under way and stunning cost declines underscoring how rapidly the industry is maturing, states projected much more willingness to work together. While each one is working to create as many local jobs as possible, they now agree there will be enough opportunities to go around.

Or at least, there will be enough for the six states from Massachusetts down to Maryland that all have hundreds of megawatts of wind under active development. A panel on supply chain development agreed the “northeastern” states could expect to see development of a regional supply chain and workforce to serve all these wind farms.

I asked where that leaves Virginia and North Carolina.

Virginia can so far count on only 12 MW of wind energy coming online in the next few years as part of a Dominion Energy demonstration project, though if the Northam administration has its way, that will lead to an additional 2,000 MW by 2028. North Carolina has two Wind Energy Areas, but no projects in active development.  

The panelists split in their answers to my question. Some thought Virginia might have a role to play in the northeastern supply chain. Others suggested that given the distance, it was more reasonable to expect a second supply chain to develop in the southeast.

A “southern hub” centered on Hampton Roads would make a lot of sense. Virginia rightly brags about its deep-water port and trained workforce, but our sister states to the north say the same about their ports and seafaring history. We can’t assume the jobs will simply come our way.

Ultimately, though, we are still in the launch phase of this new industry. There are a lot of details to be worked out, and plenty of room for John Warren to work deals.  

This may happen with Dominion Energy, or it may happen without them. The AWEA attendee list showed only one Dominion employee registered for the conference, in contrast to Dominion’s developer partner Ørsted, which sent 27 of its people.

While we Virginians are simply figuring out how to get a piece of the pie, many developers and state officials at the conference are already thinking ahead to the ways offshore wind will expand the pie and alter our entire energy supply. Ten thousand megawatts by 2030 is only the beginning.

New York, for example, has adopted an offshore wind master plan that calls for 2,400 MW of offshore wind by 2030, but the state is even now pushing the federal government to identify additional lease areas offshore.

Accessing clean energy at a competitive price is just part of the reason, said Doreen Harris, director for large scale renewables at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. New York has adopted ambitious renewable energy mandates and is focused on supplying its needs as much as possible from New York sources.

As part of its master plan, NYSERDA has established a technical working group focused on jobs and supply chain.

Clint Plummer, vice president of development at Deepwater Wind, cited the needs of the broader energy market. He said the U.S. is in a “replacement cycle for power generation, with tens of thousands of megawatts retiring in the next 15 years,” a factor “driving a market need for cost-effective generation.”

Anne Marie McShea, offshore wind program administrator for the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, also said it’s important to look at the big picture. New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia — and even the northern part of North Carolina — are all part of the 13-state PJM grid that stretches as far west as Illinois.

Injecting offshore wind energy into PJM at connection points in New Jersey and Virginia will give 65 million people access to offshore wind.

This strikes me as an especially important point because wind energy in PJM today largely comes from its more western states, where flat agricultural land and a good wind resource combine to make wind power cheap.

As we work on transforming the grid into one based more on renewable energy than on fossil fuels, we need geographical balance as well as resource balance. Land-based wind, solar energy, and offshore wind are all complementary resources with different generation profiles, and building projects where they are most cost-effective will provide the most clean energy at the least cost to consumers.

So John Warren and Gov. Northam have a real opportunity to position Virginia as a key part of both the East Coast offshore wind industry and the westward-sprawling PJM grid.

It’s encouraging to see they are giving it their best shot.


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Ivy Main
Ivy Main

Ivy Main is a lawyer and a longtime volunteer with the Sierra Club's Virginia chapter. A former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employee, she is currently the Sierra Club's renewable energy chairperson. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of any organization.