Hampton Roads has a chance to create thousands of jobs and attract a potential multibillion-dollar industry to the region. The only question now is whether regional stakeholders are up to the task.
That’s the message Virginia wind energy leader Jennifer Palestrant told a room full of Hampton Roads mayors, city council members and others during a Hampton Roads Planning District Commission meeting Jan. 16.
“We’re going to get one shot at this,” said Palestrant, chief deputy for Virginia’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. “One. This opportunity will not come again.”
Palestrant said she believes momentum is building toward making Hampton Roads one of the largest, most important locations for wind turbine construction on the East Coast. With it could come a large chunk of an estimated $70 billion industry and 14,000 Virginia jobs, according to the commission.
“This is a game changer,” Palestrant said.
The state government and Dominion Energy have already taken steps toward making it a reality. Dominion announced plans in September to build a 2,600-megawatt wind farm off the coast of Virginia Beach by 2026. Then in October, Gov. Ralph Northam set clean energy goals of having 30% of the state’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2030 and 100% by 2050.
“Today, we are standing on the precipice of having the largest offshore wind development in the nation being built off our coast,” said Matt Smith, senior regional planner for the commission.
Northam’s proposed budget would also fund improvements aimed at advancing offshore capabilities. In addition to creating the Office of Offshore Wind, the budget would allocate $40 million to the Portsmouth Marine Terminal for improvements.
As Palestrant describes it, the port literally needs to reinforce the ground so it can handle the immense weight of the wind turbines, which can measure 100 feet taller than the Washington Monument.
“Otherwise, the wind turbines will wind up in the water the wrong way,” she said to chuckles.
New England states are about two years ahead of Virginia in terms of both legislation and wind projects, Palestrant told the commission. New York is aiming to construct 9,000 megawatts of wind power by 2035.
Still, Palestrant said Hampton Roads has several clear advantages over other East Coast locations. The port’s deep channels and lack of bridge obstructions means it only takes about 30 minutes for a large vessel to reach the Atlantic Ocean, she said.
Additionally, the region already has the maritime construction talent and infrastructure to pull off ambitious projects.
“In the world, there is no place better that does large scale maritime steel than Hampton Roads,” Palestrant said. “That is what we do here.”
However, having enough talent to build an aircraft carrier, a submarine and hundreds of wind turbines at the same time is another story entirely, she added. That’s why Palestrant is working with organizations like Reinvent Hampton Roads and the Hampton Roads Workforce Council to prioritize training programs for wind turbine maintenance, safety and construction.
The wind energy supply chain also presents a huge economic development opportunity for the region. If a large turbine part manufacturer like Siemens Gamesa chooses to locate in Hampton Roads, Palestrant said a slew of smaller companies would follow suit. She asked meeting attendees to imagine the region with twice its current maritime industry capacity—activity levels not seen since World War II.
“That’s what I would like to see happen here,” she said.
Hampton Roads economic development leaders have already been courting calls from offshore wind companies, said Doug Smith, president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance. The group of economic development officials has also formed a subcommittee devoted to offshore supply chain recruitment.