Virginia wind and solar companies say tax credit extensions cue up a happy new year

Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL

Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL

Congress included a welcome gift to the wind and solar industries in last week’s package of goodies that made up the year-end spending bill. For the wind industry, the renewal of the expired production tax credit (PTC) with a five-year phase-out finally ends the guessing game that has driven repeated boom-and-bust cycles—and will help Virginia’s first-ever wind farm move forward.

For solar, the extension of the investment tax credit (ITC) beyond the end of next year ensures that one of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S. won’t face a major disruption that would have driven many small companies out of business. That’s critical in Virginia, where the lack of incentives has left the market mostly to small players able to get by on small profit margins. As the economics of solar continuously improve, these small companies see a bright future in the Commonwealth.

I asked several Virginia industry members how they were feeling after Congress’ year-end gift.

“The certainty the tax credit extension gives our business is critical,” answered Jeff Nicholson, Director of Development for Waynesboro-based Sigora Solar. “While there won’t be as much of a crunch to get systems installed next year, we can hire without being concerned that the market for solar will plummet in a year.”

Sigora has been one of Virginia’s most remarkable small business success stories, growing from 11 employees at the beginning of 2015 to 44 today. With the ITC extension, the company now foresees a “long-term, steady stream of business” through the rest of the decade, said Nicholson.

The 30% ITC had been set to expire at the end of 2016 for residential customers, while dropping to 10% for commercial and utility-scale projects. Under the bill passed by Congress and signed by President Obama on December 18, the tax credit will remain at 30% for all systems through 2018, and then taper off gradually until it reaches 10% in 2022. If current price trends continue, the extra few years may be enough to make solar competitive with other fuels without subsidies.

“We know solar is a solid energy production fuel, every bit as viable as coal, oil, nuclear and wind, and it is clear that the more we build, the more cost effective it becomes,” said Paul Risberg, President of Charlottesville-based Altenergy Incorporated. Altenergy grew by 40% in 2015, and Risberg told me he now expects that trend to continue in 2016.

Another Virginia success story is Staunton-based Secure Futures LLC, which has carved out a niche supplying solar energy to tax-exempt entities like universities and local government entities in Virginia, using third-party power purchase agreements. CEO Tony Smith told me, “The ITC extension means that our business can continue to offer at or below grid-parity solar electricity to our commercial scale customers beyond 2016.”

But, he added, “It still remains challenging to attract investment in Virginia due to the disparity in incentives to solar in our state as compared with our neighboring states, especially for behind-the-meter third party owned solar.  We remain hopeful that our industry will continue to build support in Richmond to reduce the barriers to solar investment in Virginia.”

The Virginia solar industry got an extra year-end gift on Monday when Governor Terry MacAuliffe announced plans for the state government to buy 110 megawatts of solar over the next three years, accounting for 8% of its electricity usage. While 75% of that will be utility-scale solar to be built by Virginia Dominion Power, 25% will consist of on-site projects of less than 2 megawatts in size, to be built by third-party developers using power purchase agreements.* The state will follow a competitive procurement process, but in response to a question at the press conference, MacAuliffe said it will not limit participation to Virginia-based companies.

Still, the Virginia industry members were optimistic the announcement would help boost the profile of solar energy in the Commonwealth. The industry trade group, MDV-SEIA, says it participated in the discussions leading to the announcement.

Virginia has a lot of catching-up to do, of course; neighboring states are so far ahead and have so much momentum that, as the Virginia Sierra Club’s Glen Besa observed, “If Dominion sticks to its commitment (of 400 megawatts of solar by 2020), we’ll be further behind on solar than we are now.”

Photo credit NREL

Photo credit NREL

Like the ITC for solar, the 2.3 cents per kilowatt-hour PTC has been a crucial support for the wind industry, making it the second-biggest source of new electric generation in the U.S. for many years now. But until last week, Congress had been reluctant to extend the PTC for more than a year at a time, sometimes retroactively, causing havoc for planners and developers and leading to boom-and-bust cycles deeply damaging to growth.

Now the PTC will be extended through 2016 before tapering off and expiring altogether at the end of 2019. Projects that “commence construction” by the end of a given year will qualify at that year’s level. (“Commence construction” language was also added to the solar ITC.) The predictability that comes with the five-year tapering-off period is expected to finally bring stability to project planning.

And like the solar industry, the wind industry now predicts bright days ahead. Bruce Burcat, Executive Director of the Mid-Atlantic Renewable Energy Coalition, told me, “Sound policies like the PTC have driven innovation which has helped reduce the cost of wind energy down by about 66 percent over the past six years, making it highly price competitive with traditional forms of energy resources. This trend bodes well for the opportunity for wind to take hold in Virginia.”

Burcat is undeterred by Virginia’s lack of success with wind farms to date. “While no wind farms have been developed in Virginia, we believe that with the right signals from the Commonwealth, Virginia could see its first wind farms developed sometime in the next few years,” he said. “Wind farms would bring investment and jobs and other economic development opportunities to Virginia.  Wind farms would also be a very important tool for cleanly and cost-effectively helping Virginia meet the requirements of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.”

Virginia’s first wind farm is expected to be Apex Clean Energy’s 75-MW Rocky Forge project in Botetourt County, which the company projects to have operational in 2017. Tyson Utt, Apex’s Director of Development for the Mid-Atlantic, told me, “The extension of the PTC will enable the facility to charge less for the energy it produces, saving electricity consumers money.” And, he added, “The project will be built on private land with private investment and will help diversify Virginia’s energy mix while injecting millions into the local economy.”

Apex also has a second wind farm of up to 180 MW under development in Pulaski County, scheduled for completion in 2017 or 2018.

Utt agrees the wind industry won’t need incentives for long to compete with fossil fuels. “The PTC exists to help level the playing field for renewable energy, relative to legacy generation sources that have benefited from permanent subsidies for decades. That said, renewable energy is becoming so economically competitive on its own that the industry now feels comfortable accepting a phase out of the PTC over the next five years, and the tax extenders package that just passed through congress does exactly this. Of course, wind energy offers additional benefits that are not currently reflected in our incentive structure, including the ability to generate electricity without producing carbon dioxide or consuming water. We expect that as our nation moves towards the recognition that there should be a price placed on carbon, wind energy will become even more competitive with conventional generation sources.”

[UPDATE: on January 6, the Associated Press reported that Appalachian Power is seeking to buy up to 150 MW of wind power through direct ownership or long-term power purchase agreements.]

In addition to the tax credit extensions for wind and solar, Congress passed other clean energy incentives that have gotten less attention. Scott Sklar, President of the Arlington-based Stella Group, Ltd. and an adjunct professor at George Washington University, noted that other renewable technologies also qualified for tax credits, and a tax deduction for energy efficiency improvements in commercial buildings was renewed. He also pointed to provisions in the Highway Authorization Act passed into law this month that favor renewable energy. As a result, he told me, “The end-of-year passage by Congress of extensions for the entire portfolio of energy efficiency and renewable energy, coupled with the infrastructure incentives for renewable energy in the highway bill, will more than double private investment into these sectors over the next six years.”

Sklar is bullish on clean energy. “With expanding markets, allowing these technologies to-scale even further, will insure electric grid and fuel parity before 2020, and also insure that renewable energy and energy efficiency will become the dominant energy provider both in the US and the world.”

I should note, though, that not everyone was entirely happy with Congress last week. Though they lauded the tax credit extensions, environmental groups including the Sierra Club opposed the lifting of the oil export ban that Republicans demanded in return. Exporting American crude oil, they fear, will lead to more drilling in the U.S. and higher oil consumption worldwide, further driving climate change. And while wind and solar compete head-to-head with the biggest climate culprit, coal, currently they offer little competition for oil in the transportation sector.

But with a world-wide oil glut that shows no signs of easing, observers including Sklar think lifting the export ban won’t have much effect in the near term. The extension of the renewable energy tax credits, on the other hand, will help push clean energy pricing to a point where wind and solar dominate the market for new electricity generation. According to an analysis by the Council on Foreign Relations, “Extension of the tax credits will do far more to reduce carbon dioxide emissions over the next five years than lifting the export ban will do to increase them.”

So it’s easy to see coal as the biggest loser here, but Big Oil shouldn’t feel too smug. As battery storage becomes more affordable and electric cars gain market share, wind and solar will begin to displace oil, too. The future, my friends, belongs to clean energy.

Here’s to 2016!

________________________

*The astute reader may wonder how the Governor persuaded Dominion to allow it to buy electricity from third-party providers in spite of Dominion’s tireless defense of its monopoly on electricity sales and its reluctance to allow other customers to use PPAs outside the narrow confines of a pilot program. Unlike most of us, the state purchases power from Dominion under a contract, rather than under a tariff overseen by the State Corporation Commission. So allowing the state to use PPAs required negotiating a change to the contract but does not have immediate ramifications for lesser folk. But still: at some point, doesn’t it become obvious that restrictions on PPAs are simply holding the market back?

And even all you astute readers may not have thought to ask: when the state buys solar electricity from Dominion or third parties, who will own the RECs? After all, it is not the guy with the solar system on his roof who can legally claim to be using solar energy, but the guy holding the renewable energy certificates (RECs) associated with that energy. If the state wants to brag about meeting its new goal of 8% of its electricity from solar, it had better hold the RECs to prove it—and not, for example, allow Dominion to sell the RECs to a Pennsylvania utility or to the voluntary participants of its Green Power Program. When I asked Deputy Secretary of Commerce Hayes Framme about this, however, he said the question of who will own the RECs “has yet to be determined.”

Dominion ditches plans for onshore wind in Virginia, but grows bullish on solar

Not for you, Virginia.

Not for you, Virginia.

Well, now it’s semi-official: in spite of what it has been telling customers for years, Dominion Power is not going to build onshore wind in Virginia. Speaking at an Edison Electric Institute conference in Dallas on November 13, Dominion Resources Executive Vice President and CFO Mark Gettrick spelled it out:

“When the wind business first got started, a decade, a decade and a half ago, we built two wind projects early on [Mt. Storm, in West Virginia, and Fowler Ridge, in Indiana], and we elected not to build any more. We steered away from wind. We do not think wind would ever be a good resource on land, in Virginia anyway, and so we elected not to pursue incremental wind projects.”

Someone should probably let the rest of the company in on the secret. Dominion’s website still insists the company has three Virginia onshore wind projects in development, and it included 247 megawatts’ worth in its latest Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). But the plan reflects the company’s cooling enthusiasm for wind energy, with the projects now slated for 2022-2024.

This is disappointing news, but it certainly isn’t a surprise. Dominion proposed its Virginia wind farms back before fracking caused natural gas prices to nosedive, undercutting the economic case for wind. At that point, Virginia’s lack of a real RPS meant Dominion had no incentive to build higher-priced generation, and every reason to believe the State Corporation Commission would reject a wind project, as it did similar proposals from Appalachian Power.

But though it is abandoning wind, the company is enthusiastic about solar. Gettrick said Dominion sees “gas and solar” as the way to comply with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which will require states to lower their carbon emissions from electric generating plants. Gettrick said:

“We see a growing need in Virginia to install solar for native load compliance with carbon. So that’s what we’re doing . . . So watch where we go with solar. We like the technology, the cost continues to drop, and we see it as a cornerstone for future development in Virginia.”

Advocates may wonder, why solar and not wind? Wind would seem to be cheaper, after all, and a single utility-scale turbine provides more power than hundreds of home solar systems.

The IRP offers part of the answer. For a utility, not all power is equal. Dominion has plenty of power for times when demand is low; the challenge is filling in the peaks and valleys of demand above that minimum level. Dominion needs the most power on summer days when solar produces well but wind does not.

The other part of the answer is price. This will surprise people who have seen the rock-bottom prices of wind power in places like Iowa and Texas, where wind outcompetes even natural gas. But it’s cheap to build wind among cornfields or on open rangeland, where access is easy. It’s more expensive to do it in the eastern mountains, where narrow, winding roads pose logistical challenges. The result is that wind power in the Southeast will cost about double what it costs in the Plains, according to the most recent Lazard analysis.

By contrast, Lazard calculates that utility scale solar power costs only about 20% more in the Southeast than it does in the dry, sunny Southwest, where utility-scale solar has reached grid parity. So while the best wind prices are well below the best solar prices nationwide, solar may be cheaper than wind in Virginia.

Lazard’s analyses are based on actual projects, but it also makes some predictions about where prices are headed. It projects unsubsidized utility-scale solar prices of six cents per kilowatt-hour by 2017, confirming predictions of widespread grid parity made by other analysts like Citibank and Deutsche Bank.

If you’re concerned about meeting EPA carbon emissions rules, or just concerned about the environment, period–or you want a reliable and stable-priced resource to hedge gas–solar makes very good sense.

Given these price trends, Dominion’s enthusiasm is entirely understandable. But surely it has some explaining to do, after years of trashing solar to legislators and the SCC. It has gone so far as to slap standby charges on customers who generate their own solar power. And as we’ve seen, its own forays into rooftop solar can’t be counted a success.

But perhaps we could all let bygones be bygones. If Dominion would focus its efforts on utility-scale solar while allowing the removal of barriers constraining the private market for commercial and residential solar, all of us would be winners.

Who’s afraid of a Carbon Rule?

Climate activists urge action to curb carbon emissions at a demonstration in Richmond, Virginia. Photo by Josh Lopez, courtesy of the Sierra Club.

Climate activists urge action to curb carbon emissions at a demonstration in Richmond, Virginia. Photo by Josh Lopez, courtesy of the Sierra Club.

When I was a law student working at the U.S. EPA in the ‘80s, we sued a company that had been polluting a Maine river for years. Back then, EPA calculated penalties based on the amount of money a polluter saved by ignoring the requirements of the Clean Water Act. The idea was to take away the economic benefit of pollution so that companies would make out better by installing treatment systems than by imposing their toxic waste on the community.

Not surprisingly, the company’s lawyers tried to prevent their client from having to pay a penalty for all those years it had been dumping pollution into the river. But their reasoning was interesting. Faced with the lawsuit, the company overhauled its industrial process and eliminated most of its waste products, which turned out to be a money-saving move. Thus, said the lawyers, the company hadn’t gained any competitive advantage by polluting the river; it had actually lost money doing so. Really, they’d have made a lot more money if we’d forced them to clean up their act sooner.

Needless to say, the argument didn’t fly, and the company paid a fine. But its experience turns out to have been a common one. When it comes to environmental regulation, industry screams that the sky is falling, but then it gets to work to solve the problem, and frequently ends up stronger than ever.

This is one reason to be skeptical of ad campaigns from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Mining Association trying to convince the public that the EPA’s new regulations on carbon pollution from power plants, to be announced on June 2, will destroy the American economy. They’ve cried wolf so many times they have lost all credibility.

And in case you are of a generous nature and inclined to forgive previous false alarms, it’s worth noting that the National Mining Association campaign earned the maximum four Pinocchios from the Washington Post fact-checker—meaning, it’s a pack of lies. The EPA has been scarcely kinder in its analysis of the Chamber’s campaign, and the economist Paul Krugman says the Chamber’s own numbers actually prove compliance with the carbon rule will be cheap.

At least we can understand the American Mining Association’s fabricating facts. These are coal mining companies, after all; of course they are opposed to limits on carbon! They’re like the tobacco companies fighting limits on smoking. In fact, they’re in a worse position, because a good many smokers say they like tobacco, whereas nobody who isn’t making money from it likes coal.

But we can’t cut the Chamber the same kind of slack. There is little reason to fear the economy will suffer by continuing the gradual phase-out of coal that is already underway. No one was building new coal plants anyway; they are too expensive compared to natural gas plants and wind farms. The old, dirty, but fully amortized coal plants will gradually be retired, and good riddance. We have paid dearly for that “cheap” power in health care for asthma and heart disease, in premature deaths, and in babies born with neurological damage from mercury in their mothers’ bodies.

Nor does the Chamber’s anti-carbon rule stance accurately reflect the opinions of the energy sector as a whole. Even those electric utilities that once relied heavily on coal have proven to be fickle friends. Many of them have already said they can live with a carbon rule that lets them swap fuel sources.

And while coal declines, other energy industries are growing and flourishing. The breathtaking pace of advances in wind, solar and battery technologies make it clear that the age of fossil fuels will end in this century. There will be winners and losers, as there always are in a free market, but the new energy economy offers so many opportunities for American companies and workers that one wishes the fear-mongers at the Chamber would stretch their necks out of their bunker far enough to see the horizon.

As for society in general, we have seldom seen a limit on pollution that didn’t make us collectively better off, and carbon will be no exception. It is always easier and cheaper to stop pollution at its source than to clean it up later or pay for the damage. That will be true here in spades, where the damage includes hotter summers, more crop losses, more disease, more destructive storms, and whole communities swamped by rising sea levels. These are already happening, and they affect both our health and our wallets. Failing to limit carbon condemns us all to economic decline and slow self-destruction.

Surely, all we have to fear about the EPA’s upcoming carbon rule is that it might not be strong enough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

News on renewables makes Virginians green, but not in a good way

Virginians want wind and solar. Bummer, y'all.

Virginians want wind and solar. Bummer, y’all.

On May 20, the Georgia Public Service Commission signed off on two power purchase agreements that will add 250 megawatts (MW) of wind energy to the state’s electricity mix. This comes on top of earlier commitments to solar energy that, combined with the wind power, will give Georgia more than 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy capacity by 2016.

While we certainly want to congratulate Georgia on its commitment to clean energy, the news has turned Virginia advocates a little green–and not in a good way. We can only wish this were us. Virginia has no wind energy to boast about, and about 15-18 megawatts of solar, according to estimates from the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.

This comes on top of other recent announcements about the great strides being made in renewable energy nationwide. If you can stomach it, here are the numbers: the U.S. installed over 1,000 MW of wind in 2013, and another 485 MW of wind just in the first quarter of 2014, bringing the total installed capacity to date to over 61,000 MW. More than 7,000 MW are in development

In Virginia, we have a few backyard turbines.

Solar, for its part, keeps breaking records, with over 4,700 MW installed in 2013, a 41% increase over the previous year, and another 680 MW in the first quarter of 2014.

Virginia solar broke into the double digits—bring out your horns and whistles!—thanks to the efforts of homeowners, colleges, the military, a few progressive towns and a handful of consumer-conscious businesses. As for our utilities, they have developed less than 1 MW of wind and solar in the Commonwealth.

Oh, but Dominion Resources, the parent of Dominion Virginia Power, just bought a 7.7 MW solar project. In, um, Georgia.

Changing to a local focus won’t help our case of envy. West Virginia doesn’t have much solar, but it has 583 MW of wind energy. North Carolina doesn’t have much wind, but it installed 335 MW of solar energy in the last year alone. Maryland is up to 142 MW of solar and 120 MW of wind.

Tennessee—Tennessee!—has 29 MW of wind and 74 MW of solar.

If we were shooting for last place among east coast states in the race to develop renewable energy, we might be able to congratulate ourselves. We are doing a great job of falling further and further behind.

Sadly, Virginia, there is no consolation prize.

American Wind Energy Association to highlight Virginia potential at June conference

Works of art, attractively priced. Photo credit: Andy Beecroft

Works of art, attractively priced.
Photo credit: Andy Beecroft

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) will be sponsoring a one-day forum on wind energy in Harrisonburg, Virginia on June 3. The Virginia Wind Center at James Madison University will host; others partners include the Department of Environmental Quality, the Sierra Club and the Southeastern Coastal Wind Coalition.

Virginia currently has only a handful of small wind turbines statewide, putting us far behind neighboring states like Maryland and West Virginia. But AWEA’s Larry Flowers, who leads the team organizing the event, says his trade association sees great potential in the Commonwealth.

With good sites for about 2,000 megawatts (MW) of land-based wind farms, and at least another 2,000 MW already slated for development offshore, Virginia could experience a wind boom in coming years.

“With Virginia’s good on- and offshore wind resource, significant load, and proximity to the PJM market, AWEA’s wind developers see Virginia as an important wind energy market,” says Flowers. “Wind has been an important diversification strategy with utilities all over the country with its fuel price and carbon risk avoidance features, while providing significant long-term local economic development benefits.”

Achieving this development will be no easy feat. Virginia does not have a Renewable Portfolio Standard requiring utilities to buy wind power, a standard policy feature in northeastern states. Nor do we offer the kind of economic incentives developers need to make wind power cost-competitive with our old, fully-depreciated coal and nuclear plants, or with electricity from natural gas at today’s low prices. (Wind power is the cheapest form of energy in some prairie states, but it is costs more to build in our mountains and offshore.) Wind is endlessly renewable and emission-free, but until we put a value on that, our utilities and regulators see little point in paying for it

Yet that calculus may be changing as wind costs continue to decline, coal grows increasingly expensive, and natural gas prices show their historic volatility. At least as significantly, wind energy could be a means of helping Virginia comply with the EPA’s carbon regulations under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act. The regulations for existing sources have not been proposed yet, but may allow states to reduce their overall carbon emissions by adding renewable energy to their electric generation mix.

Certainly, wind development would be a huge economic opportunity here. Offshore wind development is projected to create ten thousand career-length jobs in Virginia and bring millions of dollars in new economic activity to the state, especially to the Hampton Roads region. Land-based wind would be a boon to the economically hard-hit counties of southwest Virginia, where coal jobs have been disappearing steadily for more than twenty years. In addition to jobs and payments to landowners, wind farms would provide critical local tax revenue.

These policy issues will be featured topics at the AWEA forum, along with practical issues including siting, wildlife impacts, and small wind applications.

Registration for the Virginia wind energy forum is available here. Early bird discount pricing is available until May 13.

 

Time to get serious about offshore wind

Photo credit: Phil Holman

Photo credit: Phil Holman

A version of this article originally appeared in the Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot on Sunday, December 15.

No doubt about it, Virginia is for lovers of offshore wind. It’s hugely popular with the public, and Virginia legislators passed a near-unanimous resolution in its favor. Governor McDonnell talked it up, and even tossed it some bucks. Governor-elect McAuliffe is such a fan that he made television commercials about it way back in 2009.

But all that love won’t get us turbines in the water unless Dominion Virginia Power decides to build them. Dominion is the key player after winning the exclusive right to develop the federal lease area 25 miles off Virginia Beach. The company has five years to study the area and come up with a construction and operations plan—or not. Right now the company is being coy about whether it will move forward come 2018.

Alas, Virginia, getting offshore wind turbines is going to take more than sweet talk: we have to start laying the groundwork now for that trip down the aisle. So here’s a to-do list to help get us there.

Governor McAuliffe should declare offshore wind a priority from the day he takes office. Only two test turbines are likely to be spinning before the end of his term, but he can make it clear he expects Dominion to meet all of the milestones in its federal lease, ensuring the next governor presides over the big buildout.

The governor and the General Assembly can also prove their ardor by funding ocean studies that have to be conducted before construction starts. The developer of Rhode Island’s wind energy area, Deepwater Wind, expects to have its turbines spinning only five years from now thanks to state-sponsored ocean studies that, Deepwater says, translated into a three-year head start. It’s an approach Virginia should emulate. The public will pay for these studies one way or another—either as taxpayers or as ratepayers—and footing the bill now will help us make up time.

The governor can also direct an analysis of workforce and port readiness so we begin to train workers and put in place the infrastructure needed for this huge new industry.

Of course, creating a skilled workforce is hard to do with no wind projects now in Virginia. Building land-based wind here would support the growth of the workforce and the supply chain, and give everyone experience with wind energy here. One project might be the wind farm proposed by Iberdrola in northeastern North Carolina, within commuting distance of Hampton Roads workers. Dominion turned down the chance to buy energy from the project a few years ago, and it hasn’t been built. The General Assembly could turn that around with legislation to require our investor-owned utilities to incorporate wind power into their energy mix.

Why support a project in North Carolina? The simple fact is that offshore wind is too big an industry for any one state to go it alone. Creating scale and keeping costs down demands a regional approach. Cooperation means both states win. In addition to North Carolina, the governor should partner with Maryland and Delaware, which also have federally-designated wind energy areas off their coasts.

Regulators, and the public, also need to see an analysis of what impact this energy will have on our electric bills. Harder to quantify, but just as important, is a full understanding of offshore wind’s benefits. Such a study might begin with a survey to identify those Virginia companies that could participate in the supply chain, what new businesses and jobs the state might attract, and how the economically distressed regions of the state can best participate.

When the time comes, the State Corporation Commission will have to do its part by approving both the two test turbines and, later, the full wind farm. The legislature can help by declaring an offshore wind farm in the public interest—a short step beyond its earlier resolution, but one with actual weight.

Virginia offshore wind may still seem to be off in the future, but now is the time for the incoming McAuliffe Administration and the General Assembly to prove their love. Otherwise, Virginia just might get left at the altar.

From Massachusetts to New York, offshore wind energy now ready to deliver

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell addresses a packed ballroom

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell addresses a packed ballroom at the American Wind Energy Association offshore wind conference

The long-awaited Cape Wind offshore wind farm will finally begin construction off the coast of Massachusetts in 2014. So, too, will the much smaller Block Island Wind Farm off Rhode Island. When completed, Cape Wind’s 130 wind turbines will supply almost 75% of the power needs of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, while the 5-turbine Block Island Farm will supply enough clean energy to power over 17,000 homes.

2014 also seems likely to see a power purchase agreement for some of the energy to be generated by a 900 MW wind farm off the tip of Long Island that would feed power to a growing and hungry New York market, at a cost that’s economic now.

And with a second round of grants from the Department of Energy expected next spring, demonstration projects of 12-25 MW will also go forward in three more locations, producing power in 2017 and helping set the stage for rapid growth in the industry. The first-round grants went to projects in Oregon, Texas, Ohio, Maine, New Jersey and Virginia.

These were a few of the highlights from the American Wind Energy Association 2013 offshore wind conference, held October 22 and 23 in Providence, Rhode Island. More than 700 attendees packed a ballroom to hear Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell, Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and others make the case for why offshore wind energy will play a growing role in the U.S., starting in the Northeast.

Five years have passed since the American Wind Energy Association, the University of Delaware and the Sierra Club brought together researchers and wind developers for America’s first-ever conference on offshore wind energy, in Dover, Delaware. Since then, the conference has grown in scope and attendance, but the only wind turbine to make it to U.S. waters is a one-eighth-scale test model off the coast of Maine.

While Europe surged ahead and now has more than fifty offshore wind farms, the U.S. has been hampered by a slow federal leasing process, uncertainty about tax credits, and a political process ill-suited to the long-range planning and regional cooperation needed to realize the potential of this industry.

But as this year’s conference showed, the industry is moving ahead. The Obama Administration and several states identify offshore wind as a critical part of the response to climate change, as well as an opportunity to develop jobs. As many speakers explained, there is also a strong business case to be made for it. Given the price spikes that have plagued natural gas in New England and elsewhere, it makes sense to diversify power sources. In addition to providing price stability, wind energy has been shown to suppress wholesale energy prices, saving consumers money.

Perhaps most significantly, offshore wind power is likely to be the least-cost option in locations where demand is high, energy is expensive, and alternatives are few. This describes much of the Northeast, especially the densely populated area from northern New Jersey up to Massachusetts.

An analysis from AWS Truepower showed several factors that make offshore wind energy a good option in these areas:

  • A growing demand for power, driven in part by new data centers;
  • An already-congested transmission grid, coupled with the difficulty of either building new generation close to the load center or adding new transmission lines to bring in power from outside the area;
  • The proximity of offshore wind energy areas to these load centers along the coast;
  • High localized marginal prices for electricity, making offshore wind competitively priced; and
  • The ability of offshore wind to provide power when demand is greatest.

This last element is especially compelling for utilities, which have to meet a demand for power that changes throughout the day. Unlike onshore wind, which blows most strongly at night, and solar energy, which peaks in the middle of the day, offshore wind picks up in the late morning and continues through the evening hours, matching times of highest demand. According to Bruce Bailey, CEO of AWS Truepower, this fact means that in the New York market, the revenues from offshore wind energy will be about two and a half times that of onshore wind energy.

Whitney Wilson, the engineer who conducted the analysis for AWS Truepower, told me that when they looked at all the factors and then at the potential locations for offshore wind farms, one location stood out: a tract of ocean thirty miles off the coast of Montauk Point on Long Island, within the southern section of the Massachusetts/Rhode Island Wind Energy Area. Building wind farms there, her analysis showed, would provide the biggest bang for the buck.

Developer Deepwater Wind, LLC, won the right to develop the lease area last summer in the U.S.’s first-ever offshore wind lease auction. One likely customer may be the Long Island Power Authority, which put out an RFP for 280 MW of renewable energy, specifically mentioning offshore wind.

Lisa Dix, a Senior Campaign Representative with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign in New York who was also at the conference, says offshore wind makes perfect sense for Long Island, and complements the Long Island utility’s recent approval of a feed-in tariff for solar energy.

Other utilities seem likely to follow suit as they assess the benefits of offshore wind for their own customers. A greater understanding of these benefits will lead to the full buildout of the RI/MA area and the soon-to-be-leased New Jersey area.

The experience of Deepwater, Cape Wind, and the developers of the DOE-funded demonstration projects will help build the industry supply chain and workforce, and will produce the kind of learning that leads to lower prices for future projects. One such project involves the 2000 MW of the Virginia Wind Energy Area, which Dominion Power now holds the right to develop. While the economics are not currently as compelling in the cheap-energy South, this would change if the early movers achieve the cost reductions they are aiming for.

If states work together, these cost reductions and the development of a robust, domestic supply chain and workforce will happen better, sooner and smarter. Coordinated regional planning will support rapid growth in the industry while driving down costs in a virtuous cycle.

Given the urgency of climate change and the need to move the electric grid beyond fossil fuels as quickly as possible, Congress also has to make the growth of the offshore wind industry a national priority. Passing a long-term extension of the investment tax credit is a critical first step to support the tremendous renewable resource just off our coast.