This spring, Virginia took several major steps forward to harness the wind off its coast for energy. But for the second year in a row, Maryland couldn't get its wind efforts off the ground.
In March, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission approved the state's first offshore wind turbine, which will stand in the Chesapeake Bay about three miles off the coast of Cape Charles, on the Eastern Shore. There was no opposition.
The turbine is a joint effort between Gamesa Energy USA, a large European turbine manufacturer, and Huntington Ingalls Industries' shipbuilding unit, which has a major facility in Newport News, VA. The companies agreed to give the state $2 million in advance in case there is a problem, and they also agreed to do sound tests to ensure the turbine's whirring doesn't affect marine life, according to reports in the Virginian-Pilot in Hampton Roads, VA.
The turbine is a prototype that will educate regulators, would-be investors, rate payers and environmentalists on how efficient wind energy is, how much it will cost and how wide it could spread. It will generate about 5 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 1,250 homes.
Virginia officials have embraced wind's potential to reduce carbon emissions and create thousands of jobs. In 2010, legislation created the Virginia Offshore Wind Development Authority with the goal of promoting wind energy.
Recently, the U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management put out a call for companies interested in leasing all or part of 113,000 acres in federal waters off the coast of Virginia Beach. Eight companies responded.
Hank Giffin, the treasurer of the Virginia Offshore Wind Coalition, a group of companies interested in furthering wind's prospects, said his state is going about wind development in a smart way. But it will still be five to seven years before anyone sees a turbine.
And, it remains to be seen who will buy the wind power, especially when it is likely to cost much more than fossil fuel-burning sources in the short term. The question of who will buy the wind-generated electricity is the one Maryland has been trying to address, Giffin noted.
"The problem in Maryland is that no one is going to finance a wind farm unless there's a buyer for the energy. So the governor is trying to mandate buying the energy, and the legislators are saying it's too expensive," Giffin said. "Virginia will have the same problem eventually."
Maryland attempted to make sure the demand would be there before building up the supply. Senate Bill 237 and its House companion bill, HB 441, would have required power companies to purchase a certain amount of their energy from wind sources. Because wind is more expensive now than natural gas and coal, those companies would pass along the extra costs to rate payers. Those costs were estimated to be about $1.50 a month once a facility was built, which could be in about five years.
The first state to get wind power will also get jobs, federal investment and other benefits. It's not just a race between Maryland and Virginia, but along the entire coast, Giffin said.
A broad coalition of environmentalists, nurses, minority-owned businesses and faith-based groups supported the Maryland legislation. It passed the House with solid support, but the Senate failed to act on it before Maryland's session ended April 9. The initiative was a major priority of Gov. Martin O'Malley, who had pushed it in 2011.