A wind turbine plant in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy.

Can Southwest Virginia capture any of the economic benefits from the massive wind farms that are being built hundreds or even thousands of miles away?

A project announced Tuesday is designed to find out.

Project Veer will examine whether, and how, manufacturers in the state’s far southwest corner can become part of the wind energy supply chain, as large wind farms take shape in the U.S. and off its shores, driving a growing need for turbine components.

“This is one of those rare moments where you have a new market for manufacturers to jump in, and if we aren’t aggressive, we’re going to miss it,” said Will Payne, director of InvestSWVA, which designed the project.

“No one in this region today knows really what the opportunities are,” he said.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the average utility-scale wind turbine is made up of roughly 8,000 parts. While some of those components have to be made as close as possible to the wind installation – turbine blades, for instance, are too large to be transported long distances over land – other pieces could be manufactured pretty much anywhere, Payne said.

So why not Southwest Virginia? he asked.

The project, which was announced at a meeting of the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority, will follow on work done earlier this year by the Hampton Roads Alliance, whose similar study found gaps in the wind energy supply chain and looked at how manufacturers could fill them.

Between now and March, Xodus, an energy consulting firm, will examine wind energy supply chain needs and Southwest Virginia’s region’s existing manufacturing infrastructure. It will meet with economic development and workforce officials in the region and will put out a call for manufacturers that might want to diversify.

Payne said he expects initial interest will come from companies that work with the coal industry; because they already manufacture large pieces of equipment, they’ll understand the scale of this kind of infrastructure, he said.

Project backers hope to come out of the study phase with a sense of where Southwest Virginia should focus its efforts.

“We want to manage expectations, but we believe that this market analysis will identify green lights here for the region for certain components,” Payne said.

The study will be funded by $49,750 from GO Virginia, $30,000 from the state Tobacco Commission and $12,750 from Coalfield Strategies, Payne’s economic development consulting firm.

Other project team members include the Hampton Roads Alliance, Appalachian Power Co. and Dominion Energy, which is building a utility-scale wind farm 27 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach that’s expected to be operational by 2026. It will include up to 180 turbines. (Dominion is a major donor to Cardinal News; donations have no influence on editorial policy.)

Dominion and Appalachian both are facing a state mandate to move away from fossil fuel-fired electricity production and toward alternatives such as wind and solar: The state’s 2020 Clean Economy Act requires that all electricity consumed in Virginia must be generated from renewable sources by 2050.

The growth and diversification plan for GO Virginia Region One, which includes 16 localities in Southwest Virginia, cites energy and minerals as a target industry. 

Another effort to harness Southwest Virginia’s coal manufacturing legacy for a new economy industry is already in progress. The Energy Storage and Electrification Manufacturing Jobs project, headed by Appalachian Voices, is working with four Tazewell-area companies to pivot from manufacturing for the coal industry to producing components for the clean energy sector, such as electric vehicles.

Megan Schnabel is managing editor for Cardinal News. Reach her at megan@cardinalnews.org or 540-819-4969.