Eileen Woll: Leaders need to make sure offshore wind is 'made in Virginia'

Op-Ed by Eileen Woll
Inside Business

According to a Department of Energy report released in August, there are 25,464 megawatts of offshore wind projects - enough to power about 8 million homes - planned in 13 states, with most online by 2030.

Researchers estimate five states with large ports — New York, New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina — would reap $3.6 billion in economic benefits by building out new offshore wind farms.

No wonder three wind energy lease areas off the coast of Massachusetts recently sold for a record-breaking $405 million.

America is on the brink of a new exciting frontier with offshore wind power. Everyone wants a piece of the action, including oil companies who now hold a handful of Atlantic lease areas.

The first few projects will be erected with largely European parts, but with over 25,000 megawatts in the pipeline, the evolution to these parts being made in America is guaranteed. Massive job creation and labor opportunities are inevitable.

This is a path for American ingenuity, growth in American production of parts, and a viable response to combat the climate crisis. The real question is: how much of this exciting industry will be made in Virginia?”

One of the greatest advantages for Hampton Roads is our best-on-the-East-Coast capacity to handle very large sections of steel. There are over 8,000 parts that go into one wind turbine. Steel makes up most of the large parts, including turbine blades (today’s versions stand taller than the Washington Monument), towers, turbine foundations and offshore substations.

Two port sites in Hampton Roads could be upgraded for $15 million, and within two years stand ready for investment by a steel fabricator (or two) keen on selling key component parts for the first wave of offshore wind projects in the Northeast.

That fabricator could also serve as an anchor tenant supporting Hampton Roads businesses manufacturing any number of the other 8,000 parts, the miles of cables bringing the power to shore, or the ships building and maintaining these massive machines.

Virginia has the largest East Coast pool of experienced maritime workers, with more than 24,000 full-time jobs in shipbuilding and ship repair alone – more than New York and all New England states combined. Maritime workers have the right skills for the offshore wind industry; both industries require steel-working talent, mechanical and electrical technicians and welders.

However, companies like Newport News Shipbuilding have plans to expand their skilled labor force to build and maintain even more of the nation’s aircraft carriers and submarines. Add in the offshore wind industry and the demand for skilled workers increases even more.

To ready thousands more Virginians for these high-paying, family-supporting jobs, the commonwealth must work with labor unions, industry partners, community colleges and state universities to develop and implement a comprehensive workforce development plan.

Finally, to make Virginia attractive to the wind industry and attract manufacturing firms to Hampton Roads, Virginia must create policy certainty, and must demonstrate confidence in its own offshore wind projects.

While Virginia currently has a goal of fully building out the Virginia Wind Energy Area by 2028, there is currently no plan to achieve it. A clear path needs to be created to give the industry the certainty it needs in order to invest.

The Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project would put the country’s first turbines in federal waters and will be installed next year. This is an important first step, but it must only be the start if Virginia is to realize the full economic and environmental benefits of offshore wind.

To be erected 25 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach, the project will provide critical technical, logistical, construction lessons learned that will lower costs for the larger project.

Offshore wind has the transformative power to reinvent Hampton Roads, allowing our community to evolve from being the poster child for sea level rise, to instead being best known for answering the climate crisis with an even bigger solution.

Our evolution to being the mid-Atlantic hub for offshore wind depends on political will. To reduce our carbon footprint, we need Dominion Energy powering over 500,000 Virginia homes with offshore wind.

We need the thousands of good-paying, family supporting, community sustaining jobs to diversify and transform Hampton Roads’ economy. We need offshore wind “Made in Virginia.” Are Virginia's elected leaders ready to make that happen.

Eileen Woll is offshore energy program director for the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter. Reach her at eileen.woll@sierraclub.org