Off-shore wind project gets new life as backers alter plan to build test turbines

The hope of building a wind farm off Virginia Beach’s coast has been renewed.

The prospect was thrown into question this summer when the only bid for a two-turbine pilot project came back in July at $400 million, nearly twice as high as expected. Now, backers of the project will divide the work — and the risk — among multiple contractors in the hope of reducing the cost, said Bob Matthias, chair of the Virginia Offshore Wind Development Authority.

“Everything depends on how those bids come in,” Matthias said.

Backers led by Dominion Virginia Power explored cost-cutting measures after the $400 million bid, including opting for lower-quality turbines, but the group chose to rebid the project in pieces rather than alter it, according to a letter Friday from City Manager Jim Spore to the City Council, and previous presentations from Matthias.

If the new round of bidding produces a total cost closer to $400 million than the original estimate of $230 million, Matthias said, “that would be something Dominion won’t be able to live with.”

The authority has received $47 million in federal grants to fund the pilot program.

There are currently no U.S. off-shore wind farms, but about a dozen are in various stages of development.  The pilot project off Virginia’s coast could lead to a 200-turbine farm generating power commercially for Dominion sometime around 2020, Matthias said.

Off sure wind turbine and fishing boat
Off-shore wind turbines and fishing boat.

Construction of the two test turbines could begin next summer and finish in 2018 if the new round of bidding is successful, according to the city manager’s letter to the City Council. Original timetables predicted the turbines would be in place about 30 miles from the shore in 2017.

The project is the first that Dominion will bid out to multiple contractors, said Matthias, who is also an assistant to the Beach city manager. The utility will retain oversight by pulling in outside experts, possibly from Europe, the letter and Matthias said.

If built, the two 6-megawatt turbines would provide data for Dominion to determine how viable a wind farm might be, Matthias said. Dominion would also learn how the 500-foot-tall turbines stand up to hurricane-force winds and how much energy they will produce, versus the price of installing them, among other lessons.

Dominion did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

“There is an opportunity to create a whole new industry here,” Matthias said, but only if offshore turbines are deemed financially viable.

One reason the initial $400 million bid came in larger than estimates was the cost of installing the 450-ton turbines. Matthias said no American ships are capable of lifting them the necessary 400 feet. That means a European vessel would have to make the nearly week-long voyage and then spend days here, at a daily cost of $200,000.

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