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By Pia TalwarCapital News Service

RICHMOND — Gov. Bob McDonnell’s goal to install America’s first offshore wind energy turbine got a jolt of momentum this week from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

The commission voted unanimously March 27 to approve construction of a 479-foot-tall, five-megawatt wind turbine generator in the lower Chesapeake Bay, 3 miles off the Eastern Shore town of Cape Charles.

Construction of the prototype turbine is scheduled to be completed in late 2013 — before offshore wind energy projects on the drawing boards in other parts of the country. Officials say the prototype turbine would last at least 20 years and the submarine cable system more than 100 years.

The project is part of McDonnell’s strategy to pursue an “all of the above” approach to energy development, including fossil fuels, nuclear power and renewable energy. The Republican governor says he wants Virginia to be the energy capital of the East Coast.

The wind turbine requires approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and review by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The proposal was submitted by Gamesa Energy USA. The company is partnering with Huntington Ingalls Industries, which operates Newport News Shipbuilding, to develop and test offshore technologies.

“This is an important next step in developing all of Virginia’s domestic energy resources to help power our nation’s economy and puts Virginia at the forefront of clean energy technology development,” McDonnell said Tuesday.

“This step forward holds tremendous potential for jobs and for economic development here in the future. Virginia’s unique and efficient permitting process adopted for small energy projects like this one was a critical factor in Gamesa’s choice of Virginia as the location for this U.S. wind energy operation.”

Gamesa officials hope the project will demonstrate the company’s offshore wind turbine generator technology, called G11X. The firm is seeking to perfect the technology for worldwide commercial market deployment by 2015.

Although the project is just one turbine, an added benefit of the prototype will be the production of up to five megawatts of electricity to the Virginia transmission grid for public use.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission enthusiastically approved the project, which includes:

ź The installation of a steel foundation and tower with a maximum blade tip height of 479 feet above mean sea level;

ź Stone riprap scour protection around the foundation base;

ź Installation of 15,219 linear feet of submerged power cable buried at least 6 feet below the seabed

The turbine will stand in about 53 feet of water. The cable will connect it to the Cape Charles electrical grid through the Bay Coastal Railroad property in Cape Charles Harbor.

“This wind turbine prototype will bring jobs, jobs and more jobs, and it positions Virginia to be a leader in clean energy technology,” said Doug Domenech, Virginia’s secretary of natural resources.

Jack Travelstead, acting commission of the Marine Resources Commission, agreed.

“This is an exciting project,” Travelstead said. “This will bring jobs, energy, important new scientific information and enhanced fishing opportunities for recreational anglers.” Officials say the structure likely will attract fish looking for shade and shelter.

In its review, the Marine Resources Commission concluded that the project will not impact commercial or recreational marine activities. Marine biologists say noise from the turbine should not be an environmental problem; that section of the bay already gets a lot of traffic from freighters and small boats.

The commission didn’t receive any objections from the public. However, Virginia Democrats used McDonnell’s announcement about the renewable energy project to tweak the Republicans.

State Democratic Chairman Brian Moran said it was McDonnell’s gubernatorial predecessor, Tim Kaine, who originated the “all of the above” energy strategy. Kaine is now running for the U.S. Senate against another former governor, Republican George Allen.

Allen has said that wind and other alternative energy projects are expensive and untried and that the nation should focus on conventional fuels such as oil, coal and nuclear energy.

“Gov. McDonnell’s continued advancement of offshore wind energy is further proof of how extreme George Allen’s energy agenda is,” Moran said.

Allen did not respond to that charge. But on Wednesday, he attacked Kaine after the Obama administration proposed allowing energy companies to begin seismic testing to find oil and natural reserves off Virginia and other states along the Atlantic. This is a step toward awarding leases to drill in several years.

Allen said Kaine “took steps to try to delay Virginia’s lease sale when he was governor, and it’s disappointing that President Obama is continuing that policy,” Allen said.

Democrats should “allow Virginians to access our oil and natural gas off our coast today not six years from now.”