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At long last, Dominion decides it’s game on for offshore wind

Offshore wind turbines

The Block Island wind farm in Rhode Island. Photo by Ionna22 via Wikimedia Commons.

When utility regulators gave Dominion Energy Virginia the go-ahead to build two offshore wind turbines last November, it was still unclear whether the pilot project might be the end as well as the beginning of offshore wind in Virginia.

Now, however, Dominion seems to have decided it’s game on. Although the company hasn’t issued any public statements about its intentions, its presentation to investors in March included $880 million in spending on offshore wind through 2023, over and above the cost of the pilot project.

This came as a surprise to everyone, including Virginia regulators at the State Corporation Commission. Commissioners were not pleased that Wall Street heard the utility’s plans before they did. Dominion’s 2018 Integrated Resource Plan did not propose building a full-sized offshore wind farm any time in the next 15 years.

Nor had the 2016 and 2017 IRPs, even though the company has been sitting on a lease for an area of ocean that could provide at least 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind power, enough for 500,000 homes.

At a hearing on the IRP this month, the company promised regulators it would submit detailed information in its future filings, and confirmed that it currently has its sights set on 2024 for the first commercial wind farm.

For now, however, Dominion remains focused on getting the two test turbines up and running in a state-held lease area 24 miles out to sea from Virginia Beach. If all goes according to plan, the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project will be up and running by late summer 2020.

The two, 6-MW turbines will contribute only enough electricity to the grid for about 3,000 homes, but they will be the first turbines in federal waters anywhere in the U.S.  (The nation’s first wind farm, off Block Island in Rhode Island, is closer to shore in state waters.)

With that finish line in sight, state officials, developers, business people and offshore wind researchers were at Old Dominion University in Norfolk Tuesday night to share their vision of how Virginia will leverage its baby steps into a multi-billion-dollar industry that could “reinvent” Hampton Roads.

The town hall forum, organized by the Sierra Club, emphasized the workforce, supply chain and port opportunities if Virginia succeeds in becoming a commercial hub for offshore wind farms all along the East Coast. Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration hopes to find success with this plan even if Virginia lags other states in building wind farms.

Thomas Brostrøm, president of Ørsted North America, the Danish developer that is partnering with Dominion to build its pilot, described the size of the opportunity. The “pipeline” for projects in the U.S. has now reached 20,000 MW, mostly in New England, New York, New Jersey and Maryland. A buildout of 1,000 to 1,500 MW per year is enough to support a U.S.-based supply chain, he said. This is important not just for American businesses but also for customers, since local manufacturing means lower costs.

Brostrøm also agreed with elected leaders and port officials at the forum that Virginia’s deep-water port and unobstructed access to open ocean makes it a particularly attractive base of operations for an industry that has to transport turbine blades the length of football fields.

According to Jennifer Palestrant, director of the SMART Center for Maritime and Transportation at Tidewater Community College, the area’s ability to provide a workforce and job training needed for the new industry is also a given.

“Virginia has been building ships for 300 years,” she told the audience. “We’ve got this.” Workforce training “is in the bag.”

No doubt Virginia’s port and workforce advantages merit this home-state boosterism, but leaders in other states make similar claims. Those states also aren’t leaving anything to chance; while dangling subsidies for offshore wind energy, they are requiring developers to work with local communities and businesses.

Dominion’s decision on whether and when to move forward with a commercial wind farm will thus have a huge impact on how much of the industry Hampton Roads can attract. Mark Mitchell, the company’s director of generation projects, told the town hall audience that one of the most important pieces of information the company wants to gain from CVOW is the capacity factor of the turbines — that is, how much electricity they produce as a percentage of their full “nameplate” capacity.

Currently Dominion expects the test turbines to perform at a capacity factor of 42%. If the turbines do better than that, it means they can produce electricity at lower cost. If they perform less well, costs will be higher. Virginia is at a disadvantage compared to states further north, where stronger winds drive higher capacity factors. And with lower energy prices overall than northeastern states and no subsidies to offer, getting offshore wind to pencil out here is harder.

But Mitchell sounded confident about the future of the industry in Virginia.  As Dominion sees it, he said, offshore wind is important for achieving carbon reductions, and it complements solar “without solar’s land-use issues.” By 2024, he projects costs will fall enough to make an offshore wind farm attractive. “We see the economics coming in to support that,” he said.

This is wonderful news, and also a sudden and remarkable about face for a company that has worked at a snail’s pace since winning the development rights to the Virginia lease six years ago. Other states started later and are on track to finish earlier.

From this we draw two conclusions, one surprising and the other, not so much. First, IRPs are meaningless. Far from revealing the utility’s plans for 15 years, they don’t even tell the SCC what Dominion is thinking at that very moment.  Eat your hearts out, commissioners; to this company, you are irrelevant.

And, more obviously, Dominion follows the money. None of the reasons Virginians want offshore wind — clean energy, jobs, business development, climate mitigation — mattered until a pathway to profit opened up.

No doubt Dominion needs a new profit center. For years the company expected wealth to flow from a planned $19 billion nuclear reactor at North Anna, until the economics grew from challenging to impossible. Currently it’s gambling on the $7 billion-plus Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which is facing a similar cost spiral amid a morass of lawsuits and unresolved questions of whether it has any real customers.

Offshore wind offers an entirely new business opportunity with almost unlimited potential, and one with the added benefit of working with, not against, public opinion and advances in clean energy technology.

Building a commercial wind farm in Virginia may be just the beginning for Dominion. An industry source told me the utility’s parent company, Dominion Energy, is negotiating to buy a $400 million, offshore wind turbine installation vessel.

If true, investing in one of these specialized ships could be a canny business move, since the offshore wind industry is facing a severe shortage of them worldwide, and the U.S. currently has none at all. The purchase would indicate Dominion sees an opportunity to make money on the booming offshore wind market in the Northeast, regardless of what happens in Virginia.

Before the town hall, I asked Dominion for confirmation of its plans and received this response:

“Onshore construction activities associated with CVOW are slated to begin soon.  Additionally, the company is in the early phases of developing a construction operations plan for the larger commercial lease area and expects to have a high-level timeline soon.

“As the first approved offshore wind project in federal waters, CVOW has already provided many valuable lessons learned which will ultimately benefit our customers and the environment as we move through the dozens of required surveys, reports and assessments as part of the construction operation plan for larger scale development. Mark [Mitchell] will provide remarks next week [i.e., at the Sierra Club town hall] and we will share additional information as it becomes available.”

If this seems like disappointingly little information, take heart: you now know at least as much about Dominion’s offshore wind plans as the SCC does.

This article first appeared in the Virginia Mercuron May 30, 2019. 

 

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