Spanish wind giant Gamesa Energy Inc. won state approval Tuesday to construct a 479-foot wind turbine prototype off Virginia's Eastern Shore.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission unanimously approved the 5-megawatt wind turbine in the lower Chesapeake Bay about 3 miles off the town of Cape Charles. The project still needs the backing of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a review by the Coast Guard.
The project has a late 2013 completion date, which would make it the first wind turbine in offshore U.S. waters.
Gov. Bob McDonnell, who announced the turbine's approval, said the prototype is an important development in building wind farms off Virginia's coast and creating onshore industries to support it. Part of the prototype's purpose is to reduce the cost of offshore wind energy, which is significantly higher than other forms of energy.
"This step forward holds tremendous potential for jobs and for economic development here in the future," McDonnell said in a statement. His administration has promoted Virginia as the East Coast energy capital using an "all-of-the-approach" to develop new and traditional energy sources.
The prototype is the first publicly announced product to emerge from a partnership between Gamesa and Huntington Ingalls Newport News Shipbuilding. Apex Offshore Wind, a Charlottesville company, and the global container ship giant Maersk also have partnered to develop utility-scale wind farms in the U.S.
Developing wind farms more than 20 miles offshore requires a muscular manufacturing base to build and ship the giant components of wind energy at sea.
Proponents of developing offshore winds have said Virginia's deep water port and shipbuilding facilities are big assets for a slowly emerging industry that could create up to 10,000 jobs.
Dominion Virginia Power told the federal government last week that it is interested in leasing areas off the coast of Virginia to develop wind energy. The state's largest electric provider has designs on the entire 113,000 acres the government is making available about 24 miles off the Virginia coast.
The company said the leases have the potential of generating between 1,500 and 2,000 megawatts of electricity, enough energy to power 500,000 households.
The Gamesa prototype will put to the test new offshore technology for global commercial markets scheduled for use in 2015.
The prototype is larger than most offshore turbines and the Virginia test unit is intended to ensure it can withstand extreme open Atlantic weather conditions, said John W. Daniel, an attorney representing Gamesa Energy USA, the company's American division.
"Everyone is trying to develop a little bit larger machine," he said. A turbine generating more power means fewer have to be built, he said.
Jacqueline Savitz, senior campaign director for the advocacy group Oceana, said the project will demonstrate "that the offshore wind industry is here and ready to provide jobs and clean power to the East Coast.
"It may be just one turbine, but it's 'steel in the water' - an important milestone for the U.S.," she added.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission's approval came with several stipulations, including a bond or letter of credit of at least $2.1 million to pay for the tower once it's decommissioned. It also paid a one-time royalty of $52,667 for use of the state-owned water bottom.
The power generated by the turbine will be transmitted to the state's power grid for public use.
The nation's first offshore wind farm has been proposed in waters off of Massachusetts.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap