Wind power development off Virginia begs the question: What’s out there?

By Associated Press, Published: March 21 • Posted: Friday, March 22, 2013

RICHMOND, Va. — Before energy companies invest in developing wind energy off Virginia’s coast, they’ll need to know what’s out there: sea life, what the ocean floor is like, shipping routes, migratory birds and wind speeds. A Virginia Beach startup has begun the daunting task of collecting that data.

Founded by Navy veterans, Sound Conclusions LLC has placed a half-dozen beach ball-sized buoys in the waters off the resort city to monitor marine mammals such as endangered right whales and other aquatic life. The company has gathered 44,000 hours of data that must be reviewed second-by-second and the work is being done on its own dime. The founders are guessing that the information has value to the 10 energy companies that have signaled their interest in developing the federally designated lease area about 25 miles off the coast.

The company’s self-appointed survey illustrates the challenges of building an offshore wind industry in the U.S., which lags most of the world, and the opportunities for economic development. Proponents have estimated an offshore wind industry could create up to 10,000 jobs, not to mention clean, renewable energy to hundreds of thousands of households.

Sound Conclusions principals Donald “Keith” Stevenson and Steven C. Pascuzzi presented some of their findings Thursday at a meeting of the Virginia Offshore Wind Development Authority, which is promoting the development of wind power and a new industrial base to support it.

“The biggest thing for us,” Stevenson said during a break in the meeting, “is we’re proponents of the wind energy concept because it’s right off Virginia Beach, the Virginia coast, where we live. We wanted to at least try to make some effort to push it along.”

The federal government expects to conduct an auction this year, perhaps as early as this spring, of the parcels available for wind development in the 130-square-mile lease area. The companies already expressing an interest include the state’s largest electric utility, Dominion Virginia Power, and Energy Management Inc., developer of the nation’s first offshore wind project off Massachusetts’ Cape Cod.

Authority members discussed some efforts already under way to speed offshore wind development. One involves placing ocean platforms at the perimeters of the leasing area to gather information on winds and bird activity and another study of the ocean floor.

“There’s very little data available on what’s out there,” said Al Christopher, director of the division of energy with the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.

That’s where Sound Conclusions figures into the equation. The company can smooth the way for energy companies that already will face big capital costs for the development and manufacture of massive wind turbines that can withstand an ocean environment, as well as transmission costs.

“What we want to do is bridge some of the gaps that are out there,” Stevenson told the authority. “There’s really been a big knowledge gap into what is going on off the coast of Virginia.”

The company said the data-collecting will take a year and continue on for years after that. They’ve analyzed about 70 percent of the acoustic data.

Pascuzzi and Stevenson were cautious about discussing too much of their work. “From a future standpoint, we’re very interested in working with Virginia offshore development,” Stevenson said.

They may have had a future customer in the audience, which include energy companies and industry officials.

“Whoever gets the wind energy area will be interested in some of this data,” said Mary C. Doswell, Dominion’s senior vice president for alternative energy solutions. “Certainly, environmental groups want to know what the migratory patterns are and what would be affected in the wind energy area.”

While much has to be learned about the lease area, offshore wind power advocates say the relatively shallow waters off Virginia are optimal for development and its port and shipbuilding industry offer an ideal platform to build and launch the towering turbines and blades that convert wind to energy.

The best estimates forecast turbines rotating off the coast no earlier than 2012, but Christopher stressed that no one can say with certainty when that will occur.