Tom Farrell: Offshore wind offers promising future for Virginia's energy needs

Op-Ed by Tom Farrell
The Virginian-Pilot

Humankind has been harnessing the power of wind since the first time a boat was fitted with a sail. Since the late 1800s, people have been using wind to feed power into the electric grid. Today, sailing ships are a historical curiosity — but global wind generation capacity exceeds half a million megawatts. Offshore wind accounts for nearly 9,000 megawatts — enough energy to power 2.2 million homes. Yet so far, the United States can claim almost none of it.

We hope to change that soon.

Dominion Energy has set course for a massive new expansion of solar and wind energy. Under the provisions of the Grid Transformation and Security Act, which Gov. Ralph Northam signed into law in March, we have committed to putting 3,000 megawatts of new solar and wind generation — enough to power 750,000 homes — under development or in operation by the beginning of 2022, making Virginia a national leader in green energy.

We already have filed a request with Virginia’s State Corporation Commission to add 240 megawatts of solar energy in Virginia.

On Friday, we asked the SCC to approve an exciting offshore wind project — and we marked the occasion with an event with our Danish-based partner, Ørsted Energy, at the Nauticus Maritime Museum in Norfolk.

The Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind pilot program would place two six-megawatt wind turbines 27 miles out to sea — and generate enough power to serve 3,000 customers.

If the SCC approves our request, we hope to begin construction next spring. This demonstration project would be only the second offshore wind development in the nation. (The first, off the coast of Rhode Island, began commercial operation in December 2016.) It would be the first such project owned by an electric utility, and the first to be built in a federal lease area.

The pilot project will give us the operational weather and environmental experience needed for large-scale development. We have leased more than 112,000 acres from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Current estimates suggest the area off Virginia’s coast could supply up to 2,000 megawatts of energy from wind — enough to power 500,000 homes.

Harnessing that energy will help us continue along a trajectory we set many years ago. Over the past two decades, we have cut our carbon intensity — the ratio of carbon dioxide released to energy produced — in half. We intend to raise that figure to 60 percent by 2030. While the United States accounts for less than a fifth of world carbon dioxide emissions, and Dominion Energy accounts for only a fraction of that, we are still responsible for what we do generate — and for doing something about it.

That is why the Integrated Resource Plan we filed with the SCC three months ago makes a commitment: Our company “will continue moving toward cleaner, more efficient and lower emitting ways of generating, delivering, storing, and transporting energy.” Renewable energy will play a major role in achieving that goal. We already have more than 1,350 megawatts of solar — enough to power almost 340,000 homes on a sunny day — either in operation or under development in Virginia and North Carolina.

Now, under the auspices of the Grid Transformation and Security Act, we are adding offshore wind. The Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind demonstration project is a common element in every one of the five potential scenarios considered in the IRP.

It has taken an immense amount of work to get here. We started seven years ago — testing new technologies, obtaining regulatory approvals, and analyzing everything from ocean currents to whale migration patterns. Offshore wind development presents serious technical and logistical challenges. But it also offers distinct advantages.

Offshore wind tends to operate at higher capacities because of stronger winds, for example — meaning it can replace more fossil-fuel generation. It’s also good for wildlife: Research suggests that birds are adept at avoiding offshore wind farms.

And at 27 miles out to sea, our turbines would be out of sight to people on the shore — giving a wide berth not only to the local tourism industry but also to precious natural resources such as tidal wetlands and oyster reefs.

For decades, Dominion Energy’s mandate has been to meet the public’s need for power at a moment’s notice — safely, reliably and affordably. We also strive to do so sustainably, because we have a duty to future generations. So we have pledged to deliver cleaner, renewable energy to our customers.

We set sail some time ago and are well on our way. With the launching of the Coastal Virginia Offshore demonstration project, we now have the wind at our backs.

Tom Farrell is chairman, president and CEO of Dominion Energy.