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2 Va. firms seek to establish offshore wind farms

Federal regulators have received leasing proposals from two Virginia companies seeking to develop offshore wind farms capable of supplying clean energy to hundreds of thousands of homes.

Apex Wind Energy Inc. is proposing to lease 116,000 acres for an undetermined number of wind turbines with the potential to generate up to 1,500 megawatts of power.

Seawind Renewable Energy Corp. envisions building 240 turbines to generate enough power for more than 250,000 homes annually, according to a company statement.

Both wind farms would be located 12 miles off of Virginia Beach.

The Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, which is handling the government’s lease sales, confirmed it had received two applications for tracts off of Virginia but declined to name the applicants or specifics of their proposals.

Industry sources identified the applicants as Apex and Seawind, and both confirmed in interviews with The Associated Press they are seeking to lease the tracts for their wind projects.

Virginia has been pushing hard to be at the forefront in the U.S. of the offshore wind energy industry, which has been tangled in a federal regulatory thicket for a decade.

Gov. Bob McDonnell has made offshore drilling and wind energy a cornerstone of his new Republican administration, aiming to make Virginia the “Energy Capital of the East Coast” and the first to produce energy offshore. Virtually every Atlantic Coast state has formally expressed some interest in offshore wind energy, but only several states have generated leasing applications.

A coalition representing Virginia Beach and Norfolk, the state’s two biggest coastal cities, and industry leaders was created in January to promote Virginia as the “Silicon Valley” of wind energy on the East Coast.

The Virginia Offshore Wind Coalition estimates the development of a wind power hub in Virginia has the potential to become an $80 billion industry creating more than 10,000 jobs.

The Sierra Club of Virginia estimates the state could be producing 20 percent of its energy needs from offshore winds within a decade.

Theo J. de Wolff of Seawind said Virginia is positioned to take the lead, with a deep-water port essential to supporting the infrastructure an offshore wind farm would require.

Massive offshore wind turbines can rise 300 feet from the ocean surface, supporting blades up to 200 feet across.

“Offshore wind for Virginia is a great opportunity,” de Wolff said. “There is a lot of heavy manufacturing involved in offshore wind and the Hampton Roads region is set up for that manufacturing and to take a big part of that.”

The U.S., which has no offshore wind farms, lags considerably behind western Europe, where 25 commercially successful offshore wind projects are operating. In Denmark, for instance, 20 percent of its energy demand is met by wind power, with about half of from offshore wind turbines.

“The process of the federal government to evaluate and provide permit approval for these projects is a very complex and lengthy process,” said de Wolff, who has been involved with land-based based wind projects in West Virginia, New York and Pennsylvania.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is intent on smoothing the regulatory process, and has promised to work with East Coast states to streamline the process. He specifically cited the Cape Wind project, which would plant 130 turbines in Massachusetts’ Nantucket Sound.

The $1 billion project, supported by Gov. Deval Patrick, was proposed nine years ago and has been snared by opposition from interests ranging from commercial fishing to bird lovers, as well as regulatory delays.

Interior’s Minerals Management Service manages 1.7 billion offshore acres with wind-energy potential.

In Virginia, both wind projects are proposed for areas that would put them out of sight of the coast but within shipping lanes, migratory birds and busy sea traffic from Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base. NASA’s launch facility on Wallops Island on the Eastern Shore also limits some activity off the coast.

The proposed wind farms would be located well within the area 50 miles off the Virginia coast that is being considered for gas and oil drilling.

Both Virginia companies seeking to establish wind farms off the coast acknowledge the lease application is the first step in a long process, which could take five years before any wind is harnessed for energy.

“There’s still a lot of science that needs to be done,” said Eamon Perrel of Apex Wind, based in Charlottesville. “We don’t know what wind speeds are like out there.”

What that science reveals will determine what type of turbines will be used and how fully the 100,000 acres can be developed, said Perrel, business development manager for Apex.