Delaware’s involvement in offshore wind energy remains uncertain

Source: By Sara Swann, Salisbury Daily Times • Posted: Wednesday, October 31, 2018

As the offshore wind energy debate heats up in Maryland, the next steps for Delaware’s involvement in the industry remain uncertain. Sara Swann, Salisbury Daily Times

Offshore wind energy is not a new prospect to Delaware.

More than a decade ago, the state was pioneering the offshore wind energy industry with a project proposal from Bluewater Wind.

But then in 2008, the recession hit and Bluewater Wind, like many others, faced financial hardships. The plans for the first offshore wind project on the East Coast fell through and the topic was dropped.

In recent years, though, discussions about offshore wind energy have resurfaced in Delaware as its neighbors in Maryland have become more involved in the industry.

Although state officials in Maryland largely approve of offshore wind, the industry isn’t as popular on the local level.

Ocean City has strongly opposed the wind farm projects because of their proximity to the shore. Town officials say the potential visibility of the wind turbines along the horizon will be detrimental to local tourism.

But officials in Delaware’s beach towns haven’t expressed the same concerns over the wind farms.

Two separate projects off the coast of Delmarva are currently underway, with expected completion dates in 2022. While Maryland’s state government has been directly involved in these projects, Delaware is taking more of a backseat approach.

Delaware Gov. John Carney is supportive of renewable energy, including offshore wind, but he says more research and analysis is necessary before moving ahead.

“Finding ways to participate in the development of alternate energy sources is the right decision for our environment and our economy, and has the potential to create good-paying jobs,” Carney said in an emailed statement.

Uncertain impacts to coastal tourism, fishing have prompted wind energy debate in Ocean City

The potential detriment to coastal tourism is a large component of the offshore wind energy debate.

Multiple studies have been conducted to determine what kind of impact offshore wind energy might have on tourism, but there have been conflicting results.

A study by U.S. Wind, an offshore wind energy project developer, concluded that local tourism would not be significantly impacted by the sight of turbines along Ocean City’s horizon. But another study by North Carolina State University suggested otherwise.

The N.C. State study, often cited by Ocean City officials, received survey responses from 484 beach home renters and about 54 percent of them said they strongly prefer their view to be free of wind turbines.

“Ocean City is very fearful — understandably so — about the effect on tourism as they move forward with a project like this offshore,” Rehoboth Beach Mayor Paul Kuhns said.

While Kuhns said he understands the concerns Ocean City has, he doesn’t see Delaware beach towns in Sussex County having similar issues with the offshore wind industry.

There are many reasons why people visit Rehoboth Beach year-round, so Kuhns said he believes very few will be driven away by the turbines.

“If they were a half-mile offshore, 800 feet tall, I think that would be problematic, but I don’t see too many people saying, ‘Oh if I can’t see 25 miles out, I’m not going to come to Rehoboth anymore.’ People come to Rehoboth because it’s a beautiful town and it’s a lot of fun,” Kuhns said.

The closest offshore wind farm project to Rehoboth Beach will be about 19 miles away from the coast.

Bethany Beach Mayor Jack Gordon also said he hasn’t seen a lot of opposition among locals to the offshore wind farms. But some people aren’t fully aware of the projects since the completion dates are still several years away, he said.

Fenwick Island Mayor Gene Langman said the town has not yet taken a position on the offshore wind energy issue. Town officials plan on eventually meeting with the wind farm developers, but no discussions have been held to date, he said.

The two offshore wind projects near the Delmarva coast are being developed by U.S. Wind and Deepwater Wind, which anticipate their wind farms to be functional by 2021 and 2022, respectively.

U.S. Wind, a subsidiary of the Italy-based Toto Holding Group, plans to construct 62 turbines about 17 nautical miles — which are slightly longer than regular miles — offshore from Ocean City. This project is anticipated to produce up to 250 megawatts of power, helping Maryland meet its 25 percent renewable energy goal for 2020.

Deepwater Wind’s Skipjack project is located farther to the north and will be about 19 miles offshore from Fenwick Island, or 26 miles away from the Ocean City pier. While the Skipjack project has only 15 turbines planned right now, there is potential for future expansion within the company’s lease area.

Up until it was sold to Danish company Ørsted for $510 million, Deepwater Wind had touted its all-American roots. Now, the two companies assets and organizations will be merged.

Although the U.S. Wind project will be built off the coast of Maryland and the Skipjack project off the coast of Delaware, both wind farms are technically located in federal waters. This means that neither state has jurisdiction and the final decisions are being made by federal agencies and government officials.

But officials at the state and local levels are staying involved so that the concerns of their constituents are heard throughout the process.

Besides potentially ruining the beach view, another concern for locals is how these offshore wind energy projects could affect commercial and recreational fishing. Industry representatives say wind farms could cause harm by driving marine wildlife away, disturbing the ocean environment and making navigation more difficult for fishers and mariners.

But marine biologists and wind farm officials say the impact won’t be that severe.

Although conflicting information has muddied many discussions surrounding offshore wind energy, more research and surveying is planned before any construction will begin.

It’s unclear what kind of impact wind farms will have on local marine wildlife, Kuhns said. In the waters off Delaware, old subway cars have been sunk to create pseudo-reefs, which have been successful in attracting fish, he said.

“It seems to be a new way for people to view tourism and the environment, and a lot of people are very positive about it,” Kuhns said. “I have not seen anything that tells me it’s a negative and we would lose out on tourism.”

Taking the next steps: Gov. Carney working to find ways Delaware can up participation in developing wind energy

The way local government officials have been handling the offshore wind energy issue has been largely influenced by state government decisions.

Delaware Gov. Carney is currently assessing the next steps for the state after receiving a report from the offshore wind energy working group he commissioned.

Carney said in a statement that the working group’s report will help state officials continue to explore potential economic and environmental benefits of offshore wind for Delaware.

One reason Ocean City has been more vocal about offshore wind energy than officials in Delaware is because of Maryland’s higher degree of involvement in the projects.

In 2013, the Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act was passed, committing the state to increased renewable energy use by 2020.

While Delaware does not currently have similar legislation, Carney created the working group to study “how Delaware can participate in developing offshore wind, identify ways to leverage the related economic opportunities, and make specific recommendations for engaging in the development of offshore wind for Delaware.”

The working group held eight meetings and four public comment workshops between October 2017 and June 2018 to gather analysis and input from experts and locals.

Tom Noyles, who led the working group, said they had very good public engagement during that nine-month period. In addition to people attending the meetings, the working group also received feedback online.

At the end of June, the working group presented its findings in a 37-page report to the governor. The report included recommendations and questions that required further research or information.

“The working group recommended Delaware not go to one of the two Maryland companies and say, ‘What have you got for us?’ Because there is more space in both of those wind energy areas,” Noyles said.

It’s best for Delaware to wait to get involved until the project costs decrease, Noyles said. With more offshore wind energy projects planned along the East Coast in the coming years, the higher demand should drive down the costs.

The working group identified three key questions that require further information and analysis, according to the report:

  1. What factors need to be considered before Delaware can respond when a company proposes to develop offshore wind to serve Delaware?
  2. What factors need to be considered in a decision as to whether the State would solicit or purchase energy, capacity or renewable energy credits (RECs) from an offshore wind project?
  3. What would Delaware need to do to position itself to become the location for part of the supply chain for offshore wind projects in the Mid-Atlantic?

As the offshore wind energy industry currently stands, there are environmental and price suppression benefits that Delaware could receive, said Jeremy Firestone, a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean & Environment at the University of Delaware. Firestone was also a member of the working group.

“If this industry really takes off, then there could be quite substantial benefits,” Firestone said. “If they were to expand the ports south of the bridge, say around Delaware City, Delaware would be very well situated to provide those port services for deployment and insulation of wind turbines.”

But for some Sussex County mayors, offshore wind still seems like a far away issue for Delaware beach towns, especially as they await the next steps from state officials.

“I don’t see Delaware doing much of anything, other than watching what happens with Maryland,” Kuhns said.

Contact reporter Sara Swann at (302) 324-7711, or on Twitter