Sunday, July 10, 2011

Virginia Offshore Wind Energy

Tony Noerpel
On June 22, I attended the Virginia Offshore Wind Conference in Virginia Beach sponsored by the Sierra Club in cooperation with industry, government and other NGOs. There is considerable momentum up and down the east coast of the United States to develop this technology. The amount of energy which could be generated is quite impressive. Jane Twitmyer wrote about this in a past Sustainable Planet article [1]. Indeed, it is estimated that Virginia offshore wind could produce up to 83 percent of current electricity consumption in the state by one study [2] eliminating all fossil fuel consumption for electricity generation and displace 29.6 million metric tons of atmospheric carbon emissions. Another study by George Hagerman, one of the plenary speakers and Patrick Hatcher, speaker at this year’s REHAU/Sustainable Loudoun awards ceremony for regional science and engineering fair winners, estimates that the total potential wind farm capacity on Virginia’s outer continental shelf between 3 and 50 nautical miles is about 48 GigaWatts [3].
Conservation however is still the most important and necessary strategy to address global warming, resource depletion and energy security. From Figure 1, if Americans reduce our exosomatic energy consumption by 65% we would be on par with current European usage and at the same time be able to increase our quality of life to European standards. And Europe already has plans to do even better than that. Since electricity and transportation each use about half of total energy consumption, 83 percent of electrical power is roughly 42 percent of total power. But if we can cut total consumption by 65 percent then in fact Virginia would export energy. If we only build out some offshore wind and increase consumption by that amount then it isn’t worth doing.
In fact all new energy must come from conservation in America and indeed our conservation strategy should be aggressive enough to allow us to retire old coal fired power plants and nuclear power plants. This is the cheapest form of energy but there is no market based mechanism to make this happen. Federal regulation, subsidy, carbon tax and mandate are required. This is one point on which the conservative Republican congressman Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) and I, a liberal progressive, completely agree. This agreement bridging extremes of the political spectrum does not in and of itself mean we are correct but it does suggest that maybe people should at least consider the concept. What makes our case compelling is that both of us are well informed and our shared opinion is verifiable, i.e., we reference the peer-reviewed scientific literature.
Dominion, which dominates energy and climate policy in Virginia, has a senior vice president, Mary Doswell, responsible for alternative energy, and it is quite remarkable that the importance of alternatives has such a high level of visibility within the company. Doswell presented a rather complete list of technologies which the company is considering including offshore wind. Conservation, the most obvious and best solution, was absent from the list. There is simply no way that Dominion can make money selling less. Turning neo-classical economics on its head, clearly energy cooperatives would be a preferable organizational strategy to private enterprise at least in the energy distribution industry. Dominion, as with other private energy companies, is focused specifically on how to make more money, i.e., self interest, which is at odds with the public good. Dominion will support whatever technology makes them the most money so long as the public pays for externalities such as pollution and cancers, which means the scales are heavily tilted towards coal.
The keynote speaker was State Senator Frank Wagner. Wagner maintained that offshore wind energy might be good for jobs and contribute to reducing our dependence on foreign oil. Wagner is a global warming denier and is unaware of America’s energy crises. He mentioned that fossil fuels will be the main source of energy for centuries. We most likely do not have enough fossil fuels for that to happen, and if we do, we will so utterly compromise the environment that Homo sapiens extinction becomes the likely outcome [4].
A few speakers did acknowledge Anthropogenic Global Warming, being nearly apologetic about it as if denial is actually a rational alternative position to take. Imagine a politician or policy lobbyist saying “The GPS satellite system is important even for those of us who do not accept the controversial science that suggests the Earth may not be flat…” or “even though the science supporting a heliocentric solar system is not settled we still need to teach our children about gravity so that they don’t fall down the steps.” Anthropogenic global warming is not a scientific controversy and denial is irrational. We need to demand that our elected officials tell the truth.
It was pointed out by several speakers that most of the manufacturing occurs in countries which have strong government commitments to alternative energy and available subsidy such as Denmark, Spain and Germany. So we will have to import most of the stuff to build these offshore wind generators from those countries. No speaker verbalized the obvious connection that these countries acknowledge global warming and resource depletion. While this conference was a step in the right direction, it is a step which should have been taken 40 years ago. The tone of politicians like Wagner suggests that we will continue to fall further behind until our economic situation is hopeless and the destruction of the biosphere is beyond several critical turning points. The alternative energy manufacturing which does occur in the United States takes place in the 35 states which have mandatory Renewable energy Portfolio Standards (RPSs). Virginia has a rather weak voluntary standard, which apparently you have to quickly apologize to Dominion every time you bring this up.
A “Smart from the Start” program was established in the Midwest [4] to ensure that land-based wind energy did not negatively impact the environment. Of particular concern was the preservation of leks, which are sites where migrating birds reproduce. Apparently we do not know how to artificially build these and so once they are destroyed they are gone for good as are the birds which now no longer reproduce [5]. This was conveyed to me by a biologist in the audience. I asked if most of these leks hadn’t already been destroyed by farming and strip mining. He didn’t know. Still we can site a wind tower pretty much anywhere and easily avoid more sensitive locations.
The “Smart from the start” program as applied to off-shore wind in Virginia was initiated by the Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar [6]. This program is intended to kickstart offshore wind energy. Money has been approved to conduct an audit of existing ocean species so that potential threats can be monitored and studied and more sensitive areas can be avoided. While such a study is required for countless other reasons, there appears to be no motivation to produce an estimate of the ocean ecosystem as it was before Europeans arrived, such as the survey performed by Heike Lotze [7] on several United States estuaries, so that we can determine how close to extirpation these species already are from current human misbehavior, such as factory farming, pollution, over fishing, over use of shipping lanes, fossil fuel extraction and military activity. There is no intent to regulate the practices which are already causing the sixth major extinction event [8], whether or not we ever build a single off-shore wind energy generator.
Lobbyists representing these destructive practices are campaigning to make sure wind energy does not “negatively” impact their misbehavior. This includes the military first of all but also fisheries. The fishery lobby was represented by a very slick and articulate lawyer who worried about the impact of wind plant where fishermen currently drag their destructive nets across the ocean floor, destroying every life form except perhaps jelly-fish and harmful bacteria. If wind energy interferes with this practice then it is worth building even if we never generate one kWhr.
It is remarkable that we are front loading a promising new technology with costs to preserve an environment which no longer exists and additional costs so as not to interfere with the very practices which destroyed that environment in the first place. Am I the only person who gets this profound irony?
Wouldn’t it be smart to have a similar “smart while it is not already too late” program for the human misbehavior which is the real problem, like mountaintop removal, drag line fishing, shipping, military activities, factory farming, fertilizing lawns and so on?
Two expert presenters described these smart from the start activities. Both worked with The Virginia Institute for Marine Studies (VIMS) neither had heard of Robert Condon [9], a recent graduate and his salient paper describing how we are transforming the oceans into a jellyfish-based ecosystem from the fish-based ecosystem with which we actually evolved and desperately need. I gave one of them a list of references which I’ve cited in my articles in the past including the Condon and Lotze papers.
These are my major top-down take-aways from the conference. Cost is a driver, the cost of borrowing is important, we need to think regionally not just per project, We need a mandatory RPS in Virginia, and clear regulation and federal and state support so that manufacturing companies are encouraged to locate their facilities and “jobs” in Virginia or the US. And we need government subsidy to kick start this nascent industry such as was done in UK, Germany Spain and Denmark where it is most impressively successful.
Is it possible to encourage Dominion to aggressively pursue conservation instead of the Wise county coal fired power plant? This would be feasable if Dominion were a cooperative since it would be owned by rate payers who would have every incentive to reduce costs the most effective way possible. This is one demonstration that private enterprise is not the best institutional mechanism for many human activities such as power distribution. Think about how much insulation and caulking that coal power plant would have paid for and how many jobs for energy auditors and installers. But there is no market based mechanism to enforce or encourage rational behavior. It is ironic that rational behavior is actually precluded by the inefficiencies of the market.
Another lesson is that we cannot continue to use the energy security excuse to encourage appropriate behavior. We have to accept global warming and resource depletion and agree to do something about those two very real problems or we will not get this done. We’ve been using the energy security argument for 40 years and it has failed utterly. We have to stop condoning lies. Our energy is not insecure simply because it comes from countries which do not like us because we’ve overthrown their constitutional governments in the past to protect our various industries, or because we have from time to time replaced their democratically elected governments with ruthless dictators. Our energy is insecure because we waste so much of it. And our future is insecure because of the way we treat the biosphere. Our military is not a “solution” but perhaps the largest part of the problem, as one speaker mentioned, the US military is the single largest user of energy in our nation and uses more energy than most countries so that downsizing the military would solve a host of problems, such as its presence would no longer interfere with viable solutions such as off-short wind energy generation.
Figure 1 annual per capita fossil fuel consumption in metric tonnes of carbon.
[1] Jane Twitmyer, Wind Energy, an Alternative to PATH, March 8, 2011,
[2] Simon Mahan, Isaac Pearlman, Jacqueline Savitz, Untapped Wealth: Offshore wind can deliver cleaner, more affordable energy and more jobs than offshore oil, Oceana, September, 2010.
[3] George Hagerman, Patrick Hatcher, Kenneth Newbold, Jonathan Miles, Virginia Offshore Wind Studies, July 2007 to March 2010, Final Report, Virginia Coastal energy Research Consortium, 20 April 2010.
[4] Tony Noerpel,
[7] Heike Lotze, “Historical reconstruction of human-induced changes in the U. S. Estuaries”, Oceanography and Marine Biology: An Annual Review, 2010, 48, 267-338.
[8] Anthony D. Barnosky, Nicholas Matzke, Susumu Tomiya, Guinevere O. U.Wogan, Brian Swartz, Tiago B. Quental, Charles Marshall, Jenny L. McGuire, Emily L. Lindsey, Kaitlin C. Maguire, Ben Mersey and Elizabeth A. Ferrer, Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived?, Nature, Vol. 471, 3 March 2011.
[9] Robert H. Condon, Deborah K. Steinberg, Paul A. Del Giorgio, Thierry C. Bouvier, Deborah A. Bronk, William M. Graham, Hugh W. Ducklow, Jellyfish blooms result in a major microbial respiratory sink of carbon in marine systems, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2011; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1015782108. See also

1 comment:

  1. As Tony points out, we need to incentive Dominion Power to encourage conservation. One way is to turn it into a non-profit corporation. Another is 'de-coupling' which is practiced in California as well as some other states. A good article on the practice is here: