Offshore wind is a climate priority, but state officials see jobs and economic development, too
Two wind turbines 27 miles off the coast of Virginia are generating climate-friendly electricity and providing data that's being used to plan for a much larger offshore wind farm there. It's a budding industry that officials eventually hope to see off North Carolina, though planning here is years behind.
The towers with three slowly turning blades are anchored to the Atlantic Ocean floor, about a two-hour boat ride from Virginia Beach. At 620 feet, they're slightly taller than the Washington Monument, but not visible from shore. And they're mostly silent, even when you're right under them.
These turbines began generating electricity two years ago — 12 megawatts, or enough to power up to 3,000 homes. That's a small number. But Dominion wants to build a much larger wind farm out here — a $9.8 billion project with 176 turbines that eventually would supply 2.6 gigawatts of electricity, enough to power 660,000 homes.
"That's roughly a quarter of our customers," said John Larson, Dominion's director of economic development. "So if you think about it, it's a very large generation asset for the company to have, as we make this transition."
The transition away from electricity generated by fossil fuels is required by a 2020 Virginia state law that says Dominion must switch to 100% renewable sources by 2045.
Burning coal, gas or oil for electricity is the nation's second-largest source of greenhouse gases that cause global warming. As those older polluting plants close, wind energy will be an important complement to solar power, said Katharine Kollins, president of the Southeastern Wind Coalition.
"You can only put so much solar on the grid before you need some diversity in generating assets, before you need generating assets that are going to generate in the winter, that are going to generate at night," Kollins said.
The Biden administration has a national goal of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030. That's equal to 14 large coal-fired power plants like the Marshall Steam Station on Lake Norman. Virginia's goal is 5.2 gigawatts by 2034. And North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper wants to reach 8 gigawatts by 2040.
This isn't just about energy. It's also about economic development and jobs. Cooper told an offshore wind conference last week in Atlantic City he thinks the state can win a major share of the business to supply offshore wind development on the East Coast.
"Offshore wind is here, and it's coming hard in the U.S. And North Carolina will play a leadership role in clean energy development and for manufacturing for decades to come, that I guarantee you," Cooper said.
Since taking office, Cooper has taken steps to advance the industry. Two years ago, he signed a deal with the governors of Virginia and Maryland to cooperate on offshore wind. A year ago, he issued Executive Order 218 that set that 8-gigawatt goal as part of the state's push toward carbon-free electricity. Cooper also appointed a task force to help recruit wind industry suppliers. And the state commerce department hired an assistant secretary for clean energy economic development, Jennifer Mundt.
"There's a huge supply chain that accompanies the offshore wind industry, everything from the original equipment manufacturers, the folks who build the giant turbines and the blades … to the towers and the foundations," Mundt said.
Mundt noted that there are about 8,000 parts in a single wind turbine.
"And so all of those widgets, if you will, they have to be built somewhere," Mundt said.
Right now, many suppliers are in Europe, where the wind industry is further along. But as wind grows here, developers say they'll want suppliers close by.
A state study last year estimated the industry will bring 85,000 jobs and $140 billion in investment to the East Coast. It projects North Carolina could land $100 billion of that.
It's an ambitious goal, especially since the state is competing with its neighbors to establish offshore wind ports and recruit suppliers. Dominion Energy and the Port of Virginia are years ahead in planning.
Companies have already leased sites in what is becoming an offshore wind marine park in Portsmouth. Siemens Gamesa plans a $200 million blade manufacturing plant. Dominion and Danish wind engineering firm Orsted also have leased land there.
Dominion's John Larson said the site is ideal: It's a large U.S. Navy port, has an established maritime industry and skilled workers, and has no barriers for large ships.
"Think about ports up and down the East Coast. Almost every one of them has a bridge, somewhere near the harbor entrance," Larson said.
Major roads around the Port of Virginia have tunnels instead of bridges, because of the U.S. Navy presence.
"Large vessels can come in and out without being impeded by height restrictions. So that gives the Port of Virginia a tremendous advantage," Larson said.
Mundt of the N.C. Department of Commerce is optimistic. "I don't think North Carolina is behind. I think Virginia is really playing into its strengths with its maritime and ports facilities," she said.
One question is how many offshore wind ports are needed. Larson thinks there's a need for two major hubs on the East Coast, along with other, smaller ports to handle operations and maintenance for wind farms.
Katharine Collins of the Southeast Wind Coalition said she believes the three major wind turbine manufacturers each will have a major manufacturing site on the East Coast.
North Carolina is pitching two potential wind ports: Radio Island at Morehead City and Southport, near Wilmington.
Jeremy Tarr, Gov. Cooper's top senior climate adviser, said he thinks North Carolina is doing all it should be to build an offshore wind supply chain.
"There are certain things we're just not a good fit for. But there's a lot of opportunity when it comes to construction, O&M (operations and maintenance) that North Carolina can compete for," Tarr said at the State Energy Conference in Raleigh last week.
The state's biggest opportunity may not be in supplying blades and towers, but in making the rest of those 8,000 turbine parts. The state already has at least 70 current or potential suppliers. They include:
- Charlotte-based steelmaker Nucor
- Saertex in Huntersville, which supplies woven glass and carbon for blades and other parts
- Southwire, also in Huntersville, already has a contract to supply cables for a wind farm off Martha's Vineyard, in Massachusetts.
There could be more to come, Kollins said.
"One of the best ways you can recruit that business is by committing to offshore wind development. And so that's what this state has done. I think North Carolina could get there, but we're not there yet," she said.
There's still a long way to go before there are actually turbines in the water.
One large wind project is already under development 27 miles off Kitty Hawk, by a company called Avangrid Renewables.
And next week, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will auction additional leases in an area about 20 miles off Wilmington. There's been some opposition to that site from beach communities concerned that wind turbines will ruin the view.
What's still needed is someone to buy all that power.
Avangrid is expected to sell some electricity into Virginia. Duke Energy's North Carolina grid seems the most likely destination for the rest. Where it goes will depend on whether offshore wind is included in a state carbon reduction plan that Duke and regulators are developing this year. Offshore wind is still more expensive than other renewable energy sources, and last year's state energy reform law requires least-cost sources.
"So it effectively comes down to if and when Duke Energy will want to purchase that power," Collins said.
Duke is expected to file its proposed carbon plan on May 16 and wind will be among the options, said Regis Repko, Duke's senior vice president of generation and transmission strategy.
"We're providing a view of multiple scenarios or portfolios that we can achieve based upon timeline and cost, estimated cost at this point. So, offshore wind is in many of those scenarios as a potential resource," Repko said.
There's another hitch. State law requires Duke to own most power-generating facilities, except for a portion of solar. Duke may bid on the Wilmington leases itself. Or it could work out some kind of deal with leaseholders that satisfies the law, said Repko.
That's a complicated process still to come.
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