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EDITORIAL: Does Dominion see future blowin' in the wind?

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TAKING THE attitude that “you have to start somewhere,” Dominion Energy, Virginia’s largest electric utility, is embarking on a $300 million wind power experiment involving the construction of two wind turbines 27 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach. They should be up and running by the fall of 2020.

If those two 6-megawatt turbines produce the electricity Dominion expects—enough to power 3,000 homes—it will expand the project over time to power some 500,000 homes. If the arithmetic used to extrapolate those numbers proves accurate, that would require about 333 such turbines generating a total of 2,000 megawatts of energy.

There are a lot of variables to consider, making any such calculations of the ballpark variety. The efficiency of a wind turbine depends on how much wind there is, just as solar panels depend on sunny days to generate energy. So if a wind turbine is rated at 6 megawatts, any real-world calculation of actual energy production depends on an average wind speed over a period of time—of course the faster and more consistent, the better.

Because these projects take awhile to develop and build, the technology has time to improve. Turbines are getting better, cheaper and more efficient—just like flat-screen TVs over the past 10 years.

When Dominion leased nearly 113,000 federal acres of ocean for its Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind Project back in 2013, it was uncertain when it would “break ground” on the project because of the excessive per-megawatt cost of wind energy at the time. Even now, the company puts the cost of a wind-generated megawatt at $100, and wants to see it lowered to the $80 range as it commits itself to the wind energy business.

Dominion’s conservative approach may deserve some of the criticism it’s getting. It is a huge and diverse company, with revenues approaching roughly $14 billion over the past year. In the first quarter of 2019, the company’s assets jumped about 30 percent to more than $100 billion.

Research that states and utilities have done on wind farm placement up and down the East Coast indicate that the site Dominion has leased is ideally situated. At 27 miles out, even 600-foot turbines are unlikely to be visible from shore even on the clearest day. The wind at the site is said to be steady and strong enough to adequately push the turbines. And the water’s 80-foot depth at a site that far out makes construction a less daunting task than at greater depths.

Another advantage is the industrial infrastructure already in place along the Virginia coast, along with the shipbuilders, port services and maritime-related industries that are major contributors to Virginia’s economy.

Dominion’s conservative approach is due in part to its lack of familiarity with wind power generation. Much of its initial $300 million investment will be in onshore transmission facilities and in laying 27 miles of underwater conduits and cable.

It’s worth noting that the State Corporation Commission is allowing Dominion to funnel into the demonstration project some profits that normally would be used to hold down customers’ bills.

For its first offshore wind enterprise, Dominion is teaming up with the Danish firm Orsted. Having completed construction of its 1,000th offshore wind turbine in 2016, Orsted is regarded as the largest offshore wind company in the world.

That partnership should help build Dominion’s confidence quickly, not to mention the fact that wind farm technology isn’t exactly new. The first offshore turbine was erected off the coast of Denmark in 1991, and a predecessor of Orsted built its first offshore farm in 2002.

Though offshore wind farms pose a threat to some bird populations, they don’t present a risk of blowouts and petroleum spills that offshore drilling operations do. The possibility of an oil-fouled Virginia coastline has made offshore wind a less controversial proposal than offshore drilling.

With its offshore wind operation, Dominion is acknowledging the need to promote development of alternative energy sources. By investing in wind and solar, it is also starting to make good on its pledge to lessen its reliance on fossil fuels.

Twitter: @FLS_Opinion

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