(THE ANSWER IS BLOWING IN THE WIND: A group of environmental activists share a fun moment with their hand-fans promoting wind energy.)
By Joel Rubin
When you are a public relations professional, you yearn for clients as large and established as Dominion Energy. You want to be successful for them, conveying messages honestly and on as many platforms as possible. I had no idea, however, when I contacted a longtime acquaintance with the utility that it would lead to the most creative assignment of my 31 years in business.
I called Dominion because it struck me that their plan to construct 176 wind turbines starting 27 miles off Virginia Beach, where I have lived for most of the past 45 years, would be a game changer for our area’s economy and culture. Most new commerce can easily dismiss our cul-de-sac at the end of I-64. “Your airport is too small.” “Your roads are too congested.” “You don’t have a major league team or even a Crate and Barrel. Heck you even lost Nordstroms.”
But not this time. While it’s true we’re not on many prospect lists for national headquarters (let’s face it, Norfolk Southern just split for Atlanta, and our bid for Amazon was a real Hail Mary), you cannot find a better spot for companies requiring access to port facilities and people who can weld, build, and otherwise work with their hands and brains, on land or the water. Before and since World War II, Hampton Roads has primarily catered to two principal maritime conglomerates, the U.S. Navy and commercial shipping.
We build aircraft carriers and submarines, repair those and many other combatant ships, empty and fill the largest container vessels (and coal colliers) in the world and train people to do all this essential work for the nation. I wish we had an iconic bridge around here but eschewing them for tunnels means nothing is too tall for our harbors. Sometimes we are down on our region, but I don’t know what America would do without us. We are first in war and up there in peace. Trucks and railroads move cargo from here around the nation. My hunch is that much of the foreign-made goods that populate store shelves east of the Mississippi today arrived on a boat in Norfolk or Portsmouth.
And speaking of Portsmouth, the Virginia Port Authority had an empty 287-acre terminal there that it wisely decided to make available to offshore wind companies, once Dominion opted to lease 113,000 acres of ocean for the country’s largest windfarm. Why wouldn’t the supply chain beat a path to our shore, to fashion the football field size blades and other turbine components?
But are we ready for this? Will we have enough graduating high school students, career switchers and exiting military to fill the jobs? Will we support the transmission facilities to take the power from the former Camp Pendleton to Fentress Field in Chesapeake? Will ODU, other colleges and our secondary schools beef up their academic programs to “own” this new field of study, leading to scholarly research, conferences, and innovations? If we meet these challenges, Hampton Roads can become the Big Apple of renewable energy, a field with no limits on opportunity.
That’s why I conceived “WINDSdays,” secured URL and set out to own a day of the week. We must build a culture around the power of wind, green environment, and clean energy. Our vision was to spread the word through events, like our recent YNot WINDSday at the Sandler Center, through friends with followings and of course, communications, my stock in trade. Our weekly It’s WINDSday newsletter highlights our allies and why, as our fans say, the Wind is Blowing our Way.
We are nothing if not innovative. In April for instance, with the help of sponsors, we transported 45 local high school welders on luxury buses to Portsmouth Marine Terminal to see the site of Siemens Gamesa’s future blade finishing plant and to hear educators and business leaders tell them that the region in which they reside should be their home for a lifetime. We will do that again for 60 more of these skilled superstars in the fall.
For this initiative, we collaborated with the Hampton Roads Workforce Council. For others, we have affiliated with the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission and Economic Development Alliance; the Virginia Maritime Association, the VPA, the Virginia Arts Festival, Norfolk Sister Cities; non-profits like Lynnhaven River Now and companies, many in the hospitality space. Our volunteer WINDSday Warriors rode the Godspeed in Norfolk’s Parade of Sail, had drinks with the Chesapeake Alliance and visited Newport News’ Port Warwick, to demonstrate that wind energy is a regional enterprise, worthy of everyone’s attention. Yes, Virginia Beach, which will earn quite a bit of positive branding for having a mammoth set of clean energy generating wind towers off its coast, is home base for us, but we have touched nearly every city here along with Harrisonburg and Blacksburg through the engineering schools at JMU and VA Tech.
You cannot see the future right now, but in 2023, a mammoth American-made commercial vessel, the Texas-built Charybdis, arrives that will convey the turbine pieces out to windfarms starting in mid-2024. As we speak, new companies to the state are setting up shop, and we at WINDSdays are acquainting our audiences with these come-here’s as well as existing entities that post our partner stickers on their doors and websites and extol the value of clean energy and what it means for our edge of the nation.
At WINDSdays, we say that “opportunity is knocking on our shore.” Let’s embrace it.