Do turbines hurt tourism? Depends on where you put them

Source: David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, January 10, 2019

An angler fishing off the beach at Great Yarmouth, U.K., in the shadow of wind turbines. Chris Downer

A federally funded survey of East Coast beachgoers found that building utility-scale wind turbines within miles of the seashore won’t repel most vacationers.

What it could do is cause a “reshuffling” among tourists, attracting some visitors to the oddity of the towering structures while others try to avoid what they see as a blight on the seascape.

University of Delaware professors George Parsons and Jeremy Firestone undertook the 1,200-person survey for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and NOAA by showing respondents in 20 states a visual simulation of a wind farm with 100 6-megawatt turbines.

The simulation included views of turbines placed as close as 2.5 miles from shore, far closer than the range contemplated by BOEM for most lease areas, and as far away as 20 miles, the BOEM range’s upper boundary.

“The most salient finding is, the closer the turbines are to shore, the larger the negative impacts would be,” said Parsons.

East Coast beaches would lose between 5 to 8 percent of their total visits due to the presence of turbines sited within the BOEM range, the researchers found.

But enough people said they would seek out the beach with turbines that such “trip loss” would be effectively erased.

“[T]he negatives are largely washed out” by the gains in trips from curiosity-seekers and more customary vacationers who held a favorable view of the projects, they wrote in summary.

Blight or boon?

In the early years of offshore wind’s emergence, the possibility that turbines within view of shores could dampen the value of real estate and slow high-season commerce has so far caused periodic turbulence.

That’s largely unique to the United States, where many of the first utility-scale projects are slated for shallow East Coast waters close to popular beaches.

Proximity to shore also doomed what was supposed to be the country’s first offshore wind farm, Massachusetts’ Cape Wind. That project would have gone up just 5 miles from Cape Cod, much closer to land than what current plans envision.

Those concerns are now animating local opposition to other projects, most notably in Maryland, where the mayor and City Council in the resort town of Ocean City are demanding that turbines proposed for 17 miles offshore be relocated.

The 17-mile mark is beyond what the researchers dubbed the “break-even point,” where the positive reaction to the turbines’ presence was just as common as the negative one.

Salvo Vitale, general counsel for US Wind Inc., the developer of the Ocean City project, said the findings were consistent with those from surveys commissioned by the company and carried out with local residents.

But Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan questioned whether the survey’s sample of respondents gave an accurate reflection of how his town’s longtime vacationers would respond and said the findings didn’t alleviate his concerns about the project.

“We plan to continue to share our concerns and work toward a solution in which the turbines [are] further offshore,” he wrote in an email via staff, pointing to projects in Virginia and North Carolina planned for 27 and 24 miles from the coast, respectively.

A spokesperson from the office of Rep. Andy Harris, an Ocean City-area Republican who has called for more studies into the effect of offshore wind projects on local industries, did not offer comment on the survey but pointed to a December op-ed in which Harris wrote that he supported local officials in the district on matters of energy.

The 6-MW turbines used as the standard in the BOEM survey are deployed in the nation’s only existing wind farm, Rhode Island’s Block Island, but some developers are thinking of more powerful sorts. That includes US Wind, which has proposed 6-MW turbines but says it is considering using 8-MW or 10-MW types.

It’s not clear, though, that the size of the turbines, or their visibility from shore, will grow in proportion. The hub height of the 9.5-MW turbines planned at the Vineyard Wind project in Massachusetts, for example, is 105 meters — just 5 meters taller than the 6-MW turbines at Block Island.

Better, worse or indifferent?

Most of the survey’s respondents — between 67 and 73 percent — said the presence of turbines within the typical BOEM range wouldn’t affect their trip.

Still, a significant contingent signaled their unhappiness with the change in their view. For projects sited at the federal range’s lower bound, 10 percent reported that their experience would have been worsened, and 20 percent said the same for the upper bound.

Others apparently saw the turbines as an attraction, saying the wind farms would make for a better experience since “something good was being done for the environment.”

For projects sited 15 miles from shore — the midway point of the BOEM range — as many people said they saw it as an improvement as those who said the turbines marred the seascape. At 20 miles from shore, support grew, with 17 percent of respondents landing in the pro-turbine category and 10 percent voicing opposition.

For some, the oddity of the turbines would be a draw, at least initially.

“We did find there would be, apparently, some special trips to see the turbines,” said Parsons.

During the first few years of the projects’ existence, he said, that group of curiosity-seekers “could be pretty significant offsets, probably trailing off as more facilities come into place.”