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Offshore Winds Focus Of Virginia Conference

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VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) — Defense officials, the commercial fishing industry and the Virginia Port Authority said Wednesday they all have interests that need to be considered during the siting of wind turbines in waters off the coast.

While each said those possible conflicts could be worked out, their comments underscored what one official called the very busy waters off Virginia that are being considered for the development of the renewable energy.

Ships homeported at Naval Base Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base and home to the East Coast’s carrier fleet, all sail in these waters and conduct a variety of trials, some including live weapons.

The state’s port, the sixth largest in the nation, also has concerns about huge wind towers possibly interfering with shipping lanes.

The concerns and possible conflicts were discussed by a panel at the Virginia Offshore Wind Conference. The conference brought together advocates of offshore winds, government officials and industry representatives.

The various interests on the panel said they wanted their concerns known now before the ocean bottom is carved up for offshore wind farms.

“I think that’s the whole idea, to create the awareness with those who are going to decide where the proper siting is for offshore development,” Jeff Keever of the Virginia Port Authority said after the panel discussion.

“Hopefully they can make a better informed decision that eliminates conflict, or certainly reduces conflict with commercial shipping, considering that shipping plays such a vital role in the economy of the commonwealth,” he said.

The port handles 110 million tons of cargo annually and even larger ships are expected to serve Virginia once an expansion of the Panama Canal is completed.

An official with the Department of the Interior played down the differences, and said leasing offshore tracts could begin as soon as 2012. That would then trigger at least two years of environmental reviews.

Ned Farquhar, deputy assistant secretary at Land and Minerals Management, said sorting out various conflicts is simply a matter of sitting down all the parties and deciding what are the lowest impact areas for wind development.

He cited the Gulf of Mexico, where thousands of offshore oil rigs exist within shipping lanes for busy ports such as New Orleans, Corpus Christi and Houston.

“It’s a big coast,” he said of the waters off Virginia. “It’s a neighborhood that’s full. This is a new use. It just means we’ve got to figure out how to adapt to it.”

Various speakers at the conference displayed graphics that showed areas off the coast in which they have vital interests, ranging from the shipping lanes that converge at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay to areas absolutely off limits because of national defense concerns. Turbines, for instance, can interfere with radar. Some areas, the military said, can be used with conditions.

NASA also operates a flight center on the Eastern Shore.

Virginia is seen as a prime area for the development of offshore winds because of the relatively shallow ocean bottom 20 miles out to sea and the optimal winds out there. The state also has a deep-water port and a coastal industrial base needed to support an offshore wind industry.

Joan Bondareff, a maritime law specialist and a member of the Virginia Offshore Wind Development Authority, said it’s key to know now where conflicts arise so wind farms can be sited without conflicts with other ocean uses.

“We have to try to work these out now,” she said. “I think these are conflicts that can be resolved.”

Michelle E. Gryga, an attorney representing commercial fishing interests, said fishing is already federally regulated in terms of where they can fish, and wind turbines have the potential to further limit their fishing grounds.

Wind turbines pose a particular risk to long-line fishermen and scallop trawlers.

“They trail their gear behind their boats,” Gryga said. “So turning around a windmill, especially if they’re close, is just not going to happen.”

In an interview, Dominion Virginia Energy’s senior vice president for alternative energy solutions added another challenge about offshore development: the cost.

“Right now it boils down to the costs for ratepayers,” Mary Doswell said. “We realize that and it’s not to say it’s too costly to give up on.”

The costs involve the manufacturing and fabricating of huge towers and blades hundreds of feet across, plus procuring U.S. ships that can deliver the towers and turbines offshore.

In terms of megawatts, however, offshore winds deliver scale like no other renewable source of energy, Doswell said.

First, however, Dominion is looking at ways to deliver offshore electricity at rates their customers can afford to pay, she said.

“We’re talking to other companies, other players where we might have opportunities for cost reduction,” said. “We’ve got a lot of wheels turning.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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