Power Lines Divide the Beach

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One four-hour public hearing was not enough. Virginia Beach City Council wants another such debate before it votes on a wind company’s request to bring power cables ashore at Sandbridge Beach.

Last week’s hearing on Kitty Hawk North’s application for an easement to bury cables apparently was not covered by any Hampton Roads news media. Almost half of the time (watch it here) was used by the company’s speakers, both before and after the public spoke. Parent firm Avangrid Renewables LLC personnel were at the podium for so long because of questions from council members.

The representative for that part of the city, Barbara Henley, was the most pointed.

“We’ve heard a lot tonight from Avangrid, but in all this time, this is the first time we’ve heard it,” she complained.  “I think we all deserve answers to all of the questions before we make a decision.” Information she’d heard that evening seemed to contradict previous things she was told by city staff, she claimed. She also said city staff at one point told her of the project: “It’s not going to be viable. Don’t worry about it.”

Henley said the Sandbridge residents have been “shortchanged” so far, and also worried that nobody in the room spoke for the residents along the nine-mile route the power cables will take before connecting to the main electric grid at Corporate Landing.

Her comment came right before the meeting ended. She did not indicate how she might vote and included in her comments general support for offshore wind and the economic dream of creating a wind energy industry hub in the region. “None of that depends on where this project lands,” she said.

She was followed by Mayor Robert “Bobby” Dyer, who announced the intention for council to host another hearing “but not have a vote that night.” No date was announced.

As speaker after speaker was recorded, key observers watched from the back row. To the left (from the camera’s perspective) was William Murray, Dominion Energy Virginia’s top governmental affairs vice president. To the right was Robert Matthias, longtime Virginia Beach City lobbyist in Richmond and an early advocate for offshore wind.

So far, Dominion’s project, much larger and much closer to Virginia’s beaches, has not sparked the kind of public opposition demonstrated to Kitty Hawk that evening. Dominion’s cables are coming ashore further north, away from any residential or public beach areas, but it is going to require an even longer network of new power lines.

Maps of the lines required for both projects exist separately. What does not exist, at least in the record examined, is a combined map showing all the lines from both. Nor it is clear if the powerlines shown on current applications will be sufficient for future phases or if more will be needed, as both Dominion and Avangrid have plans for hundreds of additional turbines later.

The first speaker in opposition to the project was Joe Bourne of Protect Sandbridge Beach; several speakers wore stickers from this organization. One opponent had the crowd of opponents stand, and it appeared to be two-thirds of those present. Concerns ranged from lowered property values to construction disruptions to medical impacts of electromagnetic radiation from power lines. One speaker worried about the turbine projects driving off the region’s whales.

Speakers against included the owner of the market directly on the parking lot in question and a spokesman for the condo association directly across from it.

Speakers in favor did include residents of the Sandbridge neighborhood and other Virginia Beach residents who use it frequently. Most supportive speakers focused, however, on the economic hopes the region is pinning on the overall East Coast wind industry wanting to use Hampton Roads as its long-term installation, operations and maintenance hub.

“New York and New Jersey are coming on strong and they want to take our jobs!” warned Gretchen Heal of the Greater Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce. Television reporter-turned-public-relations-professional Joel Rubin, who said on this occasion he was not representing his client Dominion, predicted the region can become “the center for clean energy in this country.”

Avangrid disputed claims that the work installing the transmission lines and equipment under the parking lot would create a long disruption, saying it could be done in one off season, between October and May. It wasn’t clear whether that would cover just the first phase of turbines being built or would need to be repeated with future phases.

Kitty Hawk project manager Megan Higgins was pressed by a councilman on alternative landing sites for Avangrid’s cables and said a long analysis of other options determined this location was “optimal.” There isn’t enough capacity at the nearest points of possible grid interconnection in North Carolina, she said.

The project, which so far lacks any fixed power purchase agreement, wants to feed its electrons into the PJM Interconnection regional transmission organization for market prices. From a landing on the Outer Banks, hooking into PJM would require perhaps hundreds of miles of onshore transmission lines.  Pamlico Sound was rejected as a route because of the disruption to the fishing industry there and its soft bottom. Sandbridge is 36 miles from the lease area off Kitty Hawk and Sandbridge Road is almost a straight shot to the grid.

Higgins and others claimed that by bringing the cable on shore in Virginia and becoming a PJM supplier, the project would comply with the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act. That law does state that up to 5,200 megawatts of offshore wind “in federal waters and interconnected directly into the Commonwealth” shall be recognized as “in the public interest” by regulators.

Only half that favored approval status has been used up by Dominion’s first project, but it also has designs on the second 2,600-megawatt tranche in the law. Dominion could satisfy its customers’ needs and VCEA requirements by purchasing wind power from Avangrid.

Higgins also conceded that the project has filed none of the needed applications with Virginia’s State Corporation Commission, and really cannot start that process until it has the right of way secured to build the interconnecting transmission. The key to that remains the easement under and across the Sandbridge Beach parking lot, owned by the City of Virginia Beach.

Stephen D. Haner

About Stephen D. Haner

Stephen D. Haner is Senior Fellow for State and Local Tax Policy at the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy. He may be reached at [email protected].
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