Dominion’s Offshore Wind Turbines Will Generate Energy and Jobs

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Virginia Institute of Marine Studies’ research vessel Virginia approaches a wind turbine about 27 miles east of Virginia Beach. Photo by Jim Ritch.

By Stefanie Jackson – Dominion Energy’s two-turbine Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind pilot project 27 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach is among the power company’s first steps in helping the commonwealth achieve its goal of producing 100% of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2050.

“We know the importance of a true shift to reliance on renewable energy sources in reducing our carbon footprint, growing our economy, and creating the clean energy jobs of the future,” said Gov. Ralph Northam in the September 2019 press release that introduced executive order 43, which established Virginia’s clean energy goals.

The executive order was the foundation for the Virginia Clean Economy Act that was passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by the governor in 2020, noted G.T. Hollett, Dominion Energy’s director of generation projects, during a Sept. 27 media trip to see the two offshore wind turbines in the pilot project.

When federal and state permitting processes are complete, the project will be expanded into a full-scale commercial venture with up to 180 wind turbines powering as many as 660,000 homes, about 25% of Dominion Energy’s total customers in Virginia.

Each of the two pilot wind turbines is around 800 feet tall, including about 200 feet below the water’s surface and more than 600 feet above.

The steel base of the turbine is called a monopile, which reaches about 80 feet down into the water and about 120 feet into the ocean floor. Rocks at the base of the turbine provide scour protection from passing vessels.

The turbine’s height above the water is measured from the water’s surface to the tip of one of the three fiberglass turbine blades when turned to a fully upright position – a total of 620 feet, more than the Washington Monument, which is 555 feet high.

When the blades are turning and the tip of a blade is pointing straight down, it is never less than 85 to 110 feet from the water’s surface.

The blades are attached at a section of the turbine called the nacelle, which houses the turbine’s mechanical components.

A turbine’s rotor radius – from the center of a rotor to the tip of a blade – is about 250 feet. The blades on the new commercial wind turbines will be around 25% longer than the blades on the two test turbines.

The turbines start operating when wind speeds reach 8 to 9 mph. For safety, the turbines automatically shut down during a storm with wind speeds of 60 mph or more.

Dominion Energy’s pilot-project turbines are the first two wind turbines built in federal waters. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management partnered with a task force to research and determine an ideal location for a wind energy project and has leased the area to Dominion since 2013.

The commercial lease area is approximately 10 miles by 15 miles and is 42 miles off the coast at its farthest point. Its size is the equivalent of about 85,000 football fields or the city of Tampa, Fla.

The two test turbines are connected to two electrical cables, but the commercial project will use nine cables – three for every 60 turbines. The cables will be enclosed in conduit that likely will be buried in the seabed using a horizontal directional drill and by other methods, and they will connect to three offshore substations and one onshore substation in Chesapeake.

Each of the offshore substations will be topped with a helicopter landing pad, which can be used for airlifting an injured maintenance worker in an emergency. A buddy system is used – no one works alone in the commercial offshore wind area.

Dominion Energy submitted its construction and operation plan for the commercial wind project in late 2020, and an environmental review began this summer, which will take two years to complete.

Dominion expects the federal approval process will be complete in 2023, and the state regulatory review should be complete in 2022. Dominion expects onshore construction of the commercial wind project to begin in 2023, with offshore construction to begin in 2024. The entire project is expected to be complete in 2026.

The project’s installation vessel, which is currently being constructed in Texas, will comply with the Jones Act. Formally known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, it requires all shipping between U.S. ports to be conducted by U.S. flag ships. (A U.S. flag ship is built in a U.S. shipyard, follows U.S. safety rules, and is operated by an American crew.)

An offshore wind turbine is considered a port, and the installation vessel will travel between the turbines and a port in Portsmouth.

Dominion Energy collaborated with the Hampton Roads Alliance to determine how many jobs will be created by the commercial offshore wind energy project, explained John Larson, Dominion Energy’s director of public policy and economic development.

During construction, the project will provide 900 jobs every year. When the wind energy project enters its operation and maintenance phase, it will provide about 1,100 jobs per year.

Dominion Energy will enter contracts with local companies to fill 625 different job positions that have been identified. About 120 of those positions are specific to offshore wind and the rest relate to other facility requirements such as elevator maintenance and fire suppression.

About 60% to 70% of the jobs created by the wind project will be onshore.

Offshore construction will occur during May through October, to avoid noise disturbances to migrating whales.

Once the wind turbines are in operation, they emit a low “whooshing” sound that is barely audible, far quieter than a boat engine.

Below the water’s surface, marine life is flourishing on and around Dominion’s pilot-project offshore wind structures. A diver recorded video footage of mussels covering the wind turbine foundations, starfish, and schools of small and large fish swimming around the structures. Sea bass are breeding in the area, Larson added.

Dominion Energy has submitted an Integrated Resource Plan to the Virginia State Corporation Commission, which details the power company’s plans for its future energy portfolio.

Dominion will transition from traditional energy resources to the carbon-free alternatives of nuclear, solar, and wind energy. The company will continue to run some of its natural gas power plants during the transition period, Larson said.

Solar power could be used to supply hydrogen gas to those plants, he added.

Wind and solar energy are “complementary resources,” Larson said. Wind energy production is highest in the fall, winter, and spring, but its lowest energy-producing season – summer – is the highest energy-producing season for solar power, he explained.

There is more capacity for wind energy than solar energy production. Solar panels produce energy 20 to 25% of the time, but wind turbines produce energy 40% of the time or more.

Due to its thicker steel and coated fiberglass, each of Dominion’s offshore wind turbines has a 25-year lifespan, comparable to that of an onshore wind turbine, despite the offshore wind turbine’s exposure to salt water.

Dominion Energy representatives are interested in recycling materials from decommissioned wind turbines and are following recycling trends in onshore wind, such as grinding the fiberglass into small particles that can be used to make flooring and other products.

Since Dominion’s wind energy project is still in its earliest stage, the power company has nearly 25 years before the opportunity arises to recycle turbine blades, Larson noted.

Put into service in 2020, Dominion Energy’s first two operating wind turbines will be due to be decommissioned around 2045, the same year the power company is expected to stop using all fossil fuels, including natural gas, to generate electricity.

Dominion Energy is leading by example in the effort to reach Virginia’s clean energy goals.

Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, a generation and transmission cooperative that supplies electricity to 11 distribution cooperatives, including A&N Electric Cooperative, issued a press release in February in which ODEC pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

ODEC is reducing its reliance on coal and natural gas and expanding its use of renewable energy such as landfill gas, solar, and wind.

Virginia’s wind energy boom also has the potential to bring jobs to the Eastern Shore. 

Paul Ogorchock, owner of the Coastal Precast Systems concrete plant in Cape Charles, recently noted that 22 entities are seeking to construct about 1,000 wind turbines along the East Coast. 

CPS is interested in partnering with a contractor to help build the wind turbines and is even creating its own design for wind turbines that would be sunk into the ocean floor, not driven.

Brandon Mowrey, Coastal Precast’s director of business development and marketing, has said that such a project could create 50 to 100 jobs at the concrete plant.

This story was updated Oct. 6.