ODU’s effort to create wind energy hub in overdrive
As he completed his senior project last spring at Old Dominion University’s Batten College of Engineering & Technology, Kristal Sunuwar researched the development of the global offshore wind industry.
Learning how China, South Korea, Japan and European nations had developed their offshore wind programs, Sunuwar reached an unexpected conclusion: “I was surprised that the USA wasn’t farther ahead” in offshore wind development, he says. He was also struck by how much more cumbersome the governmental approval process for offshore wind projects appeared to be in the U.S. versus other countries.
Now holding a part-time position at ODU in developing offshore wind courses for future workers, Sunuwar says, “If we could make the federal process more streamlined, I think we could get it done a little bit faster.”
Questions such as these are driving work at ODU, in partnership with other educational, government and business entities, to establish a supply chain hub centered in Virginia for the burgeoning offshore wind industry along the East Coast.
In April 2020, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which requires Dominion Energy Virginia and Appalachian Power to generate all electricity for Virginia from carbon-free sources by 2045 and 2050 respectively. Meanwhile, Richmond-based Dominion Energy Inc. is working through the approval process for its 2.64-gigawatt, $7.8 billion Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind (CVOW) project 27 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach. It will include about 180 wind turbines and produce enough power for up to 660,000 homes when completed by 2026.
Also, in 2019, officials with ODU and the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy — rebranded as of Oct. 1 as the Virginia Department of Energy (Virginia Energy)— signed a memorandum of understanding for the state’s offshore wind projects, including Dominion’s wind farm.
As part of that agreement, ODU has organized the Commonwealth Offshore Wind Task Force, which brings together more than 200 partners from across the state to examine all aspects of building a brand-new industry — from workforce pipeline needs to supply-chain capability, to how offshore wind would interact with Virginia’s existing maritime industries.
Paul Olsen, executive director of programs and partnerships for ODU’s office of research, co-leads the task force with Jennifer Palestrant of Virginia Energy. As a former commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Norfolk District, Olsen sees offshore wind as the next big “megaproject” that will demand the focus of the entire Hampton Roads region.
Matt Smith, who leads offshore wind business development for the Hampton Roads Alliance, says the task force is “probably the longest ongoing effort to focus on different areas that need work to be done to make Virginia one of the hubs of the industry.”
Olsen’s approach to building the task force mirrors work he did to organize university efforts to address sea level rise when he arrived at Old Dominion in 2015. But as he works to raise funds for ODU’s research efforts, Olsen notes that the business case for offshore wind is much clearer.
“Until we monetize the cost of a milli-meter of sea level rise,” he says, it’s harder to make the case for research funding. “With offshore wind, you can monetize your progress, because you can put a price tag on a kilowatt hour.”
A decade in the making
Making the case that offshore wind presents an economically viable piece of the commonwealth’s energy picture has been part of ODU’s role since 2006, when the General Assembly established the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium (VCERC).
Headquartered at ODU, VCERC brought together researchers from Virginia Tech, James Madison University, William & Mary, Norfolk State University, Hampton University, the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University.
In its 2010 final report, VCERC researchers reported that with carbon reduction measures expected to increase the cost of coal-fired energy, new offshore wind farms could yield lower energy costs than new coal-fired power plants.
VCERC recommended that Virginia apply for a research lease to conduct a demonstration project on the potential for offshore wind off the Virginia coast to be an economically viable renewable energy source.
“Before that, nobody had even suggested that offshore wind should be in Virginia’s energy future,” says George Hagerman, senior project scientist at ODU’s Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography. “That really catalyzed everything that has happened since.”
At the time the report was released, Hagerman was a senior research associate at Virginia Tech’s Advanced Research Institute. He says ODU’s strengths in electrical engineering and oceanography were particularly valuable in the offshore wind research.
Hagerman joined the faculty at ODU in 2018.
He teamed with ODU chemistry and biochemistry professor Pat Hatcher — who chaired VCERC — and oceanographer Larry Atkinson, an esteemed member of the ODU faculty who died in January, to make presentations to the Virginia legislature and to Dominion Energy about offshore wind’s potential.
That work helped inform Dominion’s development of the CVOW project — the first offshore wind farm in U.S. federal waters.
Dominion installed a two-turbine, 12-megawatt pilot project off the coast of Virginia Beach in summer 2020. The utility plans to begin construction on the larger wind farm in 2024.
Supporting a new industry
As interest in offshore wind has increased, the capacity to review the construction and operation plans for these giant infrastructure projects has struggled to keep up. This created a backlog of plans at the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM).
When U.S. Sen. Mark Warner held a meeting on the issue in February, Olsen suggested that BOEM make use of a federal authority that allows the Army Corps of Engineers to provide interagency help for critical infrastructure projects. The idea led to an agreement between BOEM and the Corps that has sped up federal reviews for offshore wind farms.
“This is an ODU contribution that is going to unlock the industry between Cape Cod and Cape Hatteras,” Hagerman says.
The university also is helping forge connections as the Hampton Roads business community strives to present itself as an attractive place for wind-energy-related businesses to locate — key to establishing a supply chain that can support offshore wind development along the East Coast.
In May, ODU’s OpenSeas Technology Innovation Hub partnered with the Hampton Roads Alliance and the then-Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to open the Virginia Offshore Wind Landing. A coworking space located in Norfolk’s World Trade Center, Virginia Offshore Wind Landing is meant to be a collaborative space for offshore wind-related companies hoping to learn more about the region.
“It’s really a place where companies who are exploring the market in Hampton Roads have a place to get connected to resources, have meeting space [and] hold events,” says Smith.
He hopes to work with ODU’s Jerry Cronin, who heads the OpenSeas Technology Innovation Hub, to develop programming that can help connect smaller companies with federal agencies and larger players in the offshore wind industry.
“We see the relationship with ODU as a way to promote innovation and thought leadership,” he says.
Research and education
Hagerman sees the twin pilot wind turbines Dominion installed last summer as a rich bed for research into all aspects of offshore wind in Virginia.
In summer 2020, ODU, in partnership with William & Mary and James Madison University, won a $775,000 Department of Defense grant that will support research to mitigate the effects of wind farm locations on military training, readiness and research.
Hagerman and Olsen both have a long list of research topics for which they’re seeking funding. Their aim is to find ways to help reduce the cost of energy generated from offshore wind farms, to reduce the safety risks to people working on offshore wind projects and to reduce risk to the marine environment.
Olsen is actively seeking funding for research on extending the life of wind turbines, using autonomous vehicles to reduce the risk to wind farm maintenance workers, and optimizing turbine design, placement and positioning to harvest more energy.
“We would love to partner with industry,” Olsen says. “We can solve problems for business that ultimately reduce the cost of the kilowatt hour.”
Momentum around offshore wind also poses a workforce challenge.
To that end, Centura College in Virginia Beach and Thomas Nelson and Tidewater community colleges have begun offering offshore wind technician training courses.
Rema McManus, offshore wind program specialist with ODU’s Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography, traveled to the New College Institute in Martinsville in January to earn the Basic Safety Training certification offered through the Global Wind Organisation.
“I wanted to know firsthand what technicians go through,” she says. The experience opened her eyes to the fact that many skills that already exist in the Hampton Roads workforce — such as those needed to operate cranes at the port — could translate to offshore wind.
Both Smith and Hampton Roads Workforce Council President and CEO Shawn Avery say that as community colleges and technical schools train workers for offshore wind industry construction and technician jobs, ODU can play a role in educating people who could become managers and engineers in the industry.
“We are developing a brand-new industry,” Avery says. “What about the management levels, the engineering levels, the human resources behind the companies? That is where ODU will shine.”
Orlando Ayala, an ODU associate professor of mechanical engineering, is working on a National Science Foundation grant proposal to develop a graduate-level program that could train engineers in all aspects of renewable energy — from the mechanics of offshore wind to the business and geopolitical forces that govern its development.
He worked with colleagues to adapt an existing undergraduate course on energy and the environment to include lecturers working on current renewable energy projects in Virginia, including solar, biomass and Dominion’s offshore wind project.
The course debuted this past summer. Ayala’s hope is for ODU to establish a clear pipeline for students who complete technical coursework that brings them into the industry to continue to build their skills with undergraduate and graduate work at the university.
“We have to create courses that adapt to the needs of the industry,” he says.
At a glance
Old Dominion University was founded in 1930 as an extension of William & Mary and Virginia Tech. The school gained independent status in 1962 as Old Dominion College. Old Dominion began offering master’s degrees in 1964 and doctoral degrees in 1971. It was renamed Old Dominion University in 1969.
Old Dominion’s 335-acre Norfolk campus is bordered on two sides by the Elizabeth and Lafayette rivers. The school also operates regional higher educational centers in Virginia Beach, Portsmouth and Hampton.
In-state: 21,360 (88%)
International: 617 (2.5%)
Students of color: 11,620 (49%)
Tuition and fees
In-state tuition and fees: $11,160
Tuition and fees (out of state):
Room and board and other fees:
Average financial aid awarded
to full-time freshmen seeking
1 2020-21 enrollment statistics
This article has been clarified since publication.