A wind farm developer offered Ocean City free electricity, but resort town is still fighting offshore turbines

Source: By Scott Dance, Baltimore Sun • Posted: Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Ocean City officials say they don’t want offshore wind turbines to be built within 30 miles of the resort town’s beaches under any circumstances — not even in exchange for free electricity.

That was among the offers energy developer U.S. Wind recently made to appease concerns that its planned wind farm off Maryland’s coast will harm tourism.

The company also dangled other community investments worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, and offered to alter its plans if Ocean City agreed to cover the costs of seeking new government approvals.

None of that was adequate to allay fears that tourists will abandon Ocean City and flock to other beaches if Maryland’s horizon is dotted with towering wind turbines, though. Town leaders rejected the offer, Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan said.

The 32-turbine project could be the nation’s second and largest offshore wind farm, and is part of a nearly decade-long effort to boost Maryland’s supply of renewable energy. But as the proposal advances through federal reviews, Meehan said he won’t stop fighting to push the project farther off shore and protect beach views.

“We’re going to continue to proceed with any avenue we have to address our concerns,” Meehan said.

That includes lobbying the Maryland Public Service Commission to reconsider its decision last year signing off on the project, and working to force federal officials to give weight to the community’s concerns.

The response from Ocean City has surprised and frustrated U.S. Wind leaders, said Salvo Vitale, the company’s general counsel. He said such community investment packages are routine for Toto Holding Group, the Italian firm that owns U.S. Wind, and other developers, and are usually welcomed by shore cities and towns in Europe and elsewhere.

Vitale said the company isn’t worried that Ocean City’s opposition will kill the project, which falls mainly under federal authority. But he also said the town’s demands are unreasonable, and aren’t feasible — building so far from shore would require starting from scratch on an offshore leasing process that began in 2010.

“It’s a bit frustrating,” Vitale said. “What we do not see on the other side is a will to find a solution.”

The Public Service Commission approved ratepayer subsidies last year for two offshore wind projects that could add $1 to average monthly residential electricity bills across the state, a key step in developers’ planning and financing the projects. The commission approved U.S. Wind for 62 turbines at least 14 miles off the coast of Ocean City, a $1.4 billion project. It also approved a 15-turbine, $720 million project by Skipjack Offshore Wind LLC to its north.

Ever since, Ocean City officials have stepped up their opposition to the U.S. Wind project as they say a clearer and more ominous picture of the project’s appearance took shape.

U.S. Wind says it only plans to build 32 turbines at least 17 nautical miles from shore, a distance Vitale said is as far as possible within a federally approved offshore wind leasing area. But Meehan said town leaders don’t trust those assurances, since U.S. Wind’s initial proposal called for closer turbines.

“Why are they going for approval for a lease area that’s closer than 17 miles if they have no intention of putting a wind farm west of that?” Meehan said.

Vitale said U.S. Wind’s initial proposal had a larger scale to maximize chances that the project will be profitable, but now the company is advancing scaled-back plans, because that is all the market will bear.

As a gesture of what Vitale called “corporate citizenship,” U.S. Wind offered Ocean City officials a memorandum of understanding containing its community investment proposals in March, hoping to gain the town’s support. The document suggested exploring a way to offer Ocean City free or significantly discounted electricity, and Vitale said the company also suggested other investments in town projects.

U.S. Wind also said it would consider seeking federal approval for a new leasing area if the town agreed to cover costs of the complicated process.

Ocean City officials say the price for that tradeoff could be exorbitant, in the millions of dollars. And besides, they said, a pristine ocean view is priceless.

“This is not an issue to be decided on a dollar amount,” said Bruce Bereano, a lobbyist Ocean City officials hired to represent the beach town in the fight.

The City Council rejected the offers in a closed-door session last month, Meehan said.

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is still reviewing some of U.S. Wind’s plans, and expects to receive more detailed schematics later this year, which it will use to decide whether to approve the project.

In the meantime, Ocean City officials are pursuing every opportunity they can find to force the project at least 30 miles from shore. They pushed a bill in this year’s Maryland General Assembly session that would have prohibited offshore wind turbines within 30 miles of the coast, but it failed to make it out of committee.

They have asked the Public Service Commission to reconsider the project because of what they call a major increase in the proposed turbines’ height, from 200 feet to about 370 feet. A commission spokeswoman said the panel has not received any notification from U.S. Wind about the turbine changes, but that its chairman has the power to reconsider a project if it has been revised significantly.

Vitale said U.S. Wind’s approvals allow for it to adjust as turbine technology improves, and he called any change in their size “negligible.”

Meanwhile, Ocean City officials also are enlisting the help of U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican who represents the Eastern Shore. Last week, the congressman successfully attached language to a spending bill that “urges” the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to work with state and local officials to reach consensus on the wind turbines’ height and distance from the shore before they approve any construction and operations plan for the project.

If the project could harm local communities or their economy, “the proposal must be changed to protect all affected stakeholders,” Harris said in a statement.

Vitale said he thinks Ocean City is placing “the interests of few before the interests of many.”

And he said U.S. Wind is confident its project will move forward with or without Ocean City’s support — the company would just prefer to have it.

“We are sure, 100 percent, their opposition cannot kill the project,” Vitale said. “We want to be good corporate citizens.”