Travelers across the 20-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel that connects Virginia's rural Eastern Shore with the urban center of Norfolk and Virginia Beach have an expansive view of the Chesapeake Bay - a view often heralded for its breadth and beauty.

In addition to farmland, mergansers, oystercatchers and passing ships, the view in the future may include some new features: offshore wind turbines with their blades spinning, producing energy for the commonwealth of Virginia and beyond.

Offshore wind energy testing and production in this part of the Bay appears to offer promise to commercial energy firms such as Gamesa, which describes itself as a "global technological leader in the design, manufacture, installation and maintenance of wind turbines." Gamesa is partnering with Northrop Grumman to install two turbines, one offshore and one onshore, near the town of Cape Charles on Virginia's Eastern shore. The two wind turbine generators would each produce five megawatts of electricity.

Cape Charles is located in Northampton County. Situated on a small peninsula with the Chesapeake to the west, Cape Charles hosts a well-known collection of Victorian, colonial revival, Craftsman, and neo-classical style homes dating from the 1880s to the early 1900s. To accommodate the development of wind energy in this historic and rural community, Northampton County adopted an ordinance allowing wind turbines of up to 750 feet tall.

One of the two Gamesa-Northrop Grumman sites is located onshore in the county. The other, the offshore site, is approximately three miles west of Cape Charles in the Chesapeake Bay, within a 1.2 square mile study area.

Gamesa-Northrop Grumman is conducting a series of tests within the offshore study area. The tests include examining migratory bird populations, geologic conditions, wave action, fish migration and benthic communities, among others, to determine the area's suitability for the construction and operation of a wind turbine generator. These tests include drilling holes in the Bay bottom. Testing of this type in this portion of the Chesapeake, as well as the installation of a turbine, requires state agency approval from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which has jurisdiction over the subaqueous bottom of the Bay.

In March 2011, the commission approved a request from Gamesa-Northrop Grumman to drill in the Bay bottom. (A future permit would govern actual construction.) The anticipated time for the installation of the first turbine by the partnership is the end of 2012.

Gamesa and Northrop Grumman are not the only companies looking to capture the prevailing winds of the southern Chesapeake. Poseidon Atlantic is a newly formed joint venture seeking to develop a wind turbine test and certification facility.

Real NewEnergy, a sustainable energy company that works on offshore project and technology development, and two other corporate entities, Ecofys and Fugro, have created the Poseidon Atlantic initiative. The Virginia Economic Development Partnership, the Virginia Port Authority and the Netherlands government are working with Poseidon Atlantic as it moves forward with its new facility.

Real NewEnergy, located in Accokeek, MD, calls Ecofys, a Netherlands energy consulting firm, its "preferred partner." Ecofys operates the largest wind turbine test and certification center in Europe. Fugro, another Netherlands-based corporation, describes its work as a processor and interpreter of "data related to the Earth's surface and the soils."

Poseidon Atlantic will establish a facility to test and certify existing and next-generation land-based and offshore wind turbine generators, offering turbine manufacturers the opportunity to lease sites where they can construct and test their turbines. While Poseidon will locate its sites onshore (the first will be in Northumberland County), the project will be certifying offshore turbines.

The Poseidon Atlantic initiative is the first of its kind in the United States. As a result, it has the potential to place Virginia in a "leadership role in the global wind energy industry," according to Jerry W. Giles, managing director of Business Development, Technology, Energy & Corporate Services for the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.

Glen Besa, director of the Sierra Club's Virginia chapter, called the project a welcome development in the effort to bring offshore wind energy not only to Virginia but also the entire East Coast. "Turbine manufacturers," he said, "will be using this testing and certification facility regardless of where wind farms may be developed."

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has campaigned to make Virginia the "Energy Capital of the East Coast," argues that the Poseidon Atlantic project also has "huge economic development potential for the commonwealth."

The Virginia Port Authority concurs, contending that Hampton Roads is uniquely positioned to provide not only testing facilities but also marine construction, fabrication and supply-chain support to the offshore wind industry. "No other harbor along the East Coast provides the breadth of capabilities and assets that will be required as the U.S. energy portfolio diversifies to include offshore wind," said Jeff Keever, the port authority's senior deputy executive director.

Bay advocates say wind power can be a boon for the Chesapeake as well by reducing reliance on fossil fuels for power generation, a significant source of nitrogen pollution to the watershed.

The Gamesa-Northrop Grumman and Poseidon Atlantic projects are only the tip of the iceberg for offshore wind in the Bay region. The federal waters of the Atlantic Seaboard off the coasts of Virginia and Maryland are also prime targets for wind energy.

From business leaders like the Virginia Port Authority to environmental advocates like the Sierra Club, a wide range of interests are promoting offshore wind energy development in Virginia and Maryland. Last June, the Sierra Club, along with Dominion Power, Virginia business law firm giant McGuire Woods and Virginia Beach, sponsored the Virginia Off Shore Energy Conference in Norfolk. Described as a "business conference" by Eileen Levandoski, the Virginia conservation program manager for Sierra Club's Virginia state chapter, it attracted more than 300 people.

When commenting on the conference, Charles Natale, president and chief executive officer of ESS Group, Inc., a Massachusetts-based environmental consulting firm working on the Gamesa-Northrop Grumman project, stated, "Virginia would be an ideal location for an offshore wind farm for a variety of geographic, environmental and economic reasons." He concluded, "Virginia is poised to become a national hub for wind development."

Levandoski said that there is really "no opposition" to the construction of offshore wind energy turbines in the Hampton Roads portion of the Bay and Virginia. While the "biggest bugaboo" was shipping concerns, this concern diminishes with the current focus on sites located approximately 12 miles out in the ocean, she said.

Similar support for coastal offshore wind energy exists in Maryland, where NRG Bluewater Wind is proposing to develop a wind project 12 miles off the coast that would provide enough energy for as many as 136,000 households. NRG is a New Jersey company that claims to own "one of the world's most diverse [energy] generation portfolios."

Calling the Maryland project a "wind park," NRG argues that these offshore wind turbine generators will provide benefits to the marine environment, creating artificial reefs that enhance recreational opportunities such as fishing and diving.

Such initiatives have support from Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley. "We are very much committed to making offshore wind a reality off the coast of Ocean City," O'Malley said at the American Energy Association's Offshore Windpower Conference and Exhibition this October in Baltimore.

O'Malley's interest in offshore wind power generation is evidenced by the state being the second in the nation to have the U.S. Department of the Interior issue a commercial leasing request for proposals for wind power on the Outer Continental Shelf. According to the Maryland Energy Administration, "numerous developers" are competing for the federal lease for offshore wind 10 miles off the Maryland coast.

Citing the offshore winds, the shallow offshore depths and the commercial center of Baltimore, Malcolm Woolf, the MEA director, said wind power off Maryland's coast could "transform our energy future" as well as "improve public health and create thousands of jobs in Maryland."

Last year, though, the Maryland General Assembly's failed to vote on wind energy legislation championed by O'Malley. The Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act of 2011 sought the purchase of power from offshore wind generation facilities in federal waters off Maryland's coastline for a period of 20 or more years. This mandate would precipitate the development of offshore wind generation facilities.

O'Malley recently announced his plans to re-introduce this legislation in the 2012 General Assembly session.

Offshore wind generation generally has less opposition than wind turbines proposed on Appalachian mountain ridge tops, where they can be lethal to birds and bats, and are criticized as eyesores. (See "Clean may not always be green where wind power is concerned," March 2011.) Still, offshore wind energy in the Chesapeake Bay region is not without its critics. Ratepayer cost remains an issue of contention. It was a major argument for those questioning O'Malley's 2011 Maryland legislation.

To counter the concerns during the last Maryland legislative session, O'Malley added amendments to the Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act that would have capped potential ratepayer increases to $2 a month.

In October, a poll funded by several environmental groups asked ratepayers whether they would be willing to pay up to $2 more a month on a utility bill if the energy came in part from offshore wind.

Sixty two percent of the respondents (registered voters) said "yes." There were some regional differences (55 percent of Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland voters supported paying more for offshore wind, while 75 percent of voters in Baltimore City supported it), but Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, argues that these numbers are "really robust" and that the time has come for the Maryland General assembly "to catch up to the general public" when it comes to supporting offshore wind energy.

The Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium, a legislatively created university coalition charged to identify and develop new environmentally responsible coastal energy resources, argued in a recent report that Virginia's dependence on fossil fuels for electricity generation poses a substantial risk of increased costs to ratepayers. It concluded that investment in offshore wind generation would provide a hedge against these predicted increases.

Roy A. Hoagland, an attorney and consultant, has been engaged in developing Chesapeake Bay policy for more than 25 years.

Labor puts its muscle behind wind initiatives

Offshore wind energy initiatives can create strange bedfellows. The Chesapeake Climate Action Network advocating for offshore wind energy development in Maryland is diverse, including among its supporters not only conservation organizations, but also the Sheet Metal Workers International Association Local 100 and the United Steelworkers of Maryland.

In March 2011, Mike Tidwell of CCAN and Jim Strong, the subdistrict director of the United Steelworkers of Maryland, jointly authored an article in Gazette.Net in support of Gov. Martin O'Malley's Offshore Wind Energy Act.

They wrote: "Labor unions and environmental groups haven't always seen eye to eye in Maryland. The state's "green" leaders often have seemed more interested in trees than workers. And unions traditionally have focused more on short-term wages than long-term threats like global warming... The impact of climate change is now on display worldwide, from increasingly weird weather across America to the ravages of sea-level rise erasing whole acres every day in Maryland. To solve this ecological problem, we need to switch to clean energy. To solve our state's unemployment problem, we need to start making things again. So why not make windmills? Modern windmills are 90 percent steel by weight... We have the broader industrial capacity to assemble the turbines here, the high-tech engineers ready to play their part and the port facilities to ship the final product off to Ocean City - and all across the East Coast - for installation."