Op-Ed by Paul Olsen
In 2013, while serving as the commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Norfolk District, I authored an opinion piece, “Great Expectations,” in which I argued that Hampton Roads was on the cusp of significant maritime growth due to the widening of the Panama Canal.
Clearly, other leaders were predicting similar growth from organizations including the Port of Virginia, Virginia Maritime Association, Old Dominion University, and state and locally elected officials. At that time, we gathered our expertise, worked together and reached a result that was nothing short of spectacular for our port and our maritime economy.
Today, a remarkably similar opportunity has appeared on the close horizon – Offshore Wind Energy – and we have been given a goal by the state of achieving 5 Gigawatts (that’s power for about 3 million homes) of renewable energy by 2028. While the energy production is significant, an even larger opportunity is in landing the hub for the emerging Atlantic coast offshore wind logistical and workforce development markets in Hampton Roads.
The encouraging news is Virginia is already at the offshore wind table and has been dealt a winning hand. We now have to play our cards right to become an offshore wind energy hub for the eastern seaboard.
We clearly have geography to our advantage given that an effective offshore wind hub should be centrally located, along with its corresponding workforce and logistical needs. We already possess a large and skilled maritime industry workforce, enjoy economic growth that is buoyed by our expanding port, a tried and tested electrical grid, and an existing port and transportation infrastructure that could be easily modified to meet the sustainment needs for the off-shore turbines.
While much remains to be done, I am encouraged by the initial steps our region has taken. First and foremost, like our historic port modernization efforts, we are truly coming together as a region and making offshore wind a non-partisan issue that benefits all. ODU, under the leadership of President John R. Broderick, is making this a top priority and convening talented leaders and thinkers from industry, non-profit organizations and government to address this opportunity in a “whole of government, whole of community” approach as he did at the national level with his sea-level rise efforts.
As it is with port modernization and sea-level rise planning, offshore wind efforts should start with the development of an offshore wind master plan, or at the very least a “road map” which includes public and private sector experts who are well versed in the lessons to be learned from similar European markets that have already developed offshore wind as a significant and reliable energy source.
Fortunately, ODU has enlisted the expertise of George Hagerman, one of the industry’s leading experts who is currently providing experience and expertise to drive this opportunity forward. Hagerman believes the two areas where ODU can immediately leverage this effort are through work-force development (similar to what ODU is doing in cybersecurity and digital shipbuilding) as well as supply chain management. While developing a logistical hub will be difficult, ODU will have the advantage of tapping into the expertise of its Maritime Logistics Institute.
While there are advantages in plugging into offshore wind, there are also significant navigation, security and regulatory issues that are daunting, but are currently being solved.
For example, the positioning of the turbines should not interfere with navigation along the federal channels that feed our economy, our armed forces should still enjoy unfettered offshore training opportunities, and we should continue to protect the critical migratory paths of our birds and marine life. While these regulatory challenges can all be systemically addressed, ODU’s experience gained from its sea-level rise resilience work with commonwealth and federal regulators will undoubtedly accelerate the permitting process.
Offshore wind — and the ability to serve as a national-level power generation, distribution and logistical Atlantic coast hub for this market — is an opportunity that should not be missed. As we have done with port modernization and sea-level rise, ODU has the technical, logistical and academic expertise to leverage a group of public and private sector leaders to capture this potential.
Col. Paul Olsen (Ret.) is the former commander of the Norfolk District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He serves as the director of programs and partnerships for Old Dominion University.