Dominion Energy has begun construction on Virginia's first foray into offshore wind energy and plans to have two turbines built off the coast by next spring.
The utility said Monday that work is underway on a substation in Virginia Beach where cables will come ashore carrying power from the giant wind turbines, which will be located 27 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean.
By next month, sunbathers on Virginia Beach will see a construction ship about a half-mile out laying conduit underwater along the future route of the cables. Work on the turbines begins early next year, and they should be generating power later in 2020, said Paul Koonce, Dominion's executive vice president and head of its power generation group.
The turbines themselves - with blades reaching about 600 feet above the ocean's surface - will not usually be visible from the oceanfront, Koonce said. "Under the most pristine day at just the right time, it might technically be possible" to see them, he said.
Dominion considers the $300 million project a demonstration to show the potential for larger-scale offshore wind energy. The two turbines will generate only about 12 megawatts. The utility has leased a patch of ocean from the federal government that's big enough to host turbines that could generate up to 2,000 megawatts - enough to power more than 500,000 homes.
Advocates for alternative energy have criticized the project as too small and too slow to come to fruition, noting that Europe has raced ahead and that other states are also getting in the game.
While Dominion's project is the first to be built in federal waters anywhere in the U.S., Rhode Island already has five wind turbines up and running in state waters. Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Delaware, Connecticut and other states are also in the early stages of cranking up offshore wind projects.
Virginia has been flirting with such a project since 2006, when the General Assembly created the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium to study the technology and explore opportunities.
Dominion, the state's largest utility, leased a 112,800-acre patch in the Atlantic Ocean off Virginia Beach from the federal government in 2013.
Studies have found Virginia's coast to be one of the most promising sites in North America for offshore wind farms, with strong winds and shallow waters.
"To be 27 miles offshore and still in 80-foot water is an advantage," Koonce said.
Also at stake is the potential creation of a new industrial supply chain for offshore wind projects, and Virginia's ports and shipyards hope to get a prime piece of that. But Dominion said it needs to prove the concept before it can move ahead.
"We think this is the right first step," Koonce said.
He added that prices for offshore wind energy are not yet economical enough to warrant a more aggressive push. Factoring in equipment and life cycle costs, Koonce said Virginia wind energy stands to cost more than $100 per megawatt hour; Dominion wants to get that number closer to $80.
So far, the utility has not factored offshore wind energy into the 15-year electricity plan it files with the state, other than as a study project. Koonce said that will continue to be evaluated.
First the company needs to confirm that the test turbines operate as expected and generate the required capacities, he said. "Obviously we'll be studying the impact on marine life, making sure operations are consistent with what we developed in the environmental assessment," he said.
Dominion has leeway to make the investment under the sweeping regulatory overhaul the General Assembly passed last year, which set wind and solar energy as public priorities. That allowed Dominion to spend excess profits on such projects instead of returning overpayments to its customers.
Dominion is partnering on the project with the Danish firm Orsted, one of the world's biggest offshore wind companies.