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Offshore Wind Power: No Promises for VA's Coast

Dominion Virginia Power has leased land offshore for a wind park, but it’s not clear when construction might begin. 

The company says a demonstration project is needed to guide future development, but the cost to build a couple of turbines offshore is too high. 

In Denmark – which has more than 30 years of experience – experts say driving costs down is the name of the game, and they’re happy to share their secrets with Virginia. 

Denmark has been building wind farms since the early 90’s, figuring out which turbines work best offshore, what impact their construction might have on marine life and how to weather storms in the North Sea.  Engineers have also mastered the art of managing a grid using fluctuating sources of power – wind and solar – also known as photovoltaic or PV.

“If it gets out of balance too much, you’ll have a blackout.”

That’s Peter Jorgenson, Vice President of Energinet – the company that transmits power to Denmark and three other countries. 

“It was easy to run big power plants fired with coal, oil or natural gas.  You could adjust the generation so that it balanced with demand, but today you have a large share of wind power, PV and you still have to keep the system balanced.”  

He gazes through glass into a large, quiet control room where five people sit at computer screens and watch an entire wall showing the grid they oversee in collaboration with their neighbors.

“You have a map of the whole of Denmark with the interconnectors to Norway in the north, Sweden to the east and Germany to the south.”

Energinet's Anhold Wind Farm

Key to the success of Energinet are sophisticated computer programs that manage the grid, minute by minute.  Also essential is cooperation with a country that can generate hydro-electric power when the wind isn’t blowing.  Rune Birk Nielsen is a spokesman for Denmark’s main energy company.

“Norway has a huge capacity for hydro power, which they can relatively easy turn up and down.“ 

And it turns out Virginia could be in a similar situation.  Based on remarks made in 2013 by Saifur Rahman, director of the Virginia Tech Advanced Research Institute,  our Norway is in Bath County.

“Dominion has what is called pumped storage hydro facility.  That means they can pump the water at night or during low demand period, hold the water in an upper reservoir, and when the peak shows up the next day, they will let the water come down and run hydro turbines.  In fact, Dominion has the biggest pumped storage plant in the world.”

So if we had offshore turbines, excess power produced on windy days could be used to pump waterup, and when offshore wind left a gap in our grid, the facility in Bath could fill it.

But Dominion, which is heavily invested in nuclear, coal and gas-burning power plants, is moving slowly toward building offshore wind facilities.  At an international conference on wind power, we spoke with Henri Schumann , vice president of a Danish company that builds offshore wind farms. He recently visited Virginia as part of a delegation hoping to land new business.

“Well in Richmond we learned that power production is dominated by Dominion, so everything hinges on what will happen with Dominion, and of course Dominion being in a monopolized situation, has maybe not the right incentives to move ahead to the speed the market would like to see.”   

He thinks a wind farm could be up and running off Virginia’s coast by 2020, but  Dominion isn’t making any promises.  In fact, despite the exchange of more than a dozen e-mails, the utility’s chief spokesman would not agree to speak with us.  In our next report, we’ll talk with others about what it would take to speed-up development of offshore wind in Virginia. 

Sandy Hausman reported from Europe with the support of an Energy and Climate Media Fellowship from the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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