Inside the fight over Md. offshore wind project

Source: By Heather Richards, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, January 26, 2020

OCEAN CITY, Md. — Maryland Democrat Lorig Charkoudian had almost finished her speech in front of the state Public Service Commission when she was drowned out by boos from the audience.

Her offending remark was that the commission shouldn’t hold up two offshore wind projects proposed along the Delaware-Maryland border. Charkoudian, a state delegate, argued Maryland would lose an economic opportunity and fail to respond to a “climate crisis.”

But her detractors at the Saturday hearing here in Ocean City were asking for just that: a delay (Energywire, Jan. 2).

Maryland regulators in 2017 awarded offshore wind renewable energy credits to two wind projects, but developers Ørsted A/S and U.S. Wind Inc. may have unintentionally reopened the debate by requesting to build larger turbines than were originally proposed.

The big turbine debate has roiled this little beach town.

More than 700 people showed up to protest or stump for wind at the hearing before the Public Service Commission. When seats ran out, people stood.

Men in “Make America Great Again” hats and environmentalists with “Offshore Wind Now” stickers on their chests shouldered local business owners, condo developers and union workers.

“I would argue that the economic benefit and the progress of offshore wind is accelerating very rapidly,” said Mark Rice, president of Maritime Applied Physics Corp.,` whose business would boom from the offshore developments. He feared delays. “Maryland was once at the forefront of that process, but it’s quickly falling behind,” he said.

The country’s nascent offshore wind industry has indeed progressed at a rapid clip.

Though it’s yet to raise a commercial-scale wind farm in U.S. waters, the industry is eager to start. Developers are taking advantage of falling prices, lessons learned in the European market and a cascade of Eastern Seaboard state policies supporting offshore wind.

State policymakers in favor of offshore wind have been jockeying to be early players. They want to secure the jobs and tax income from being a port hub for the industry.

Federal permitting, though, slowed the rampant optimism of industry in 2019 when the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management delayed a final environmental review for the Vineyard Wind project off Massachusetts due to fishing concerns.

‘Never be the same’

But residents of Ocean City are a pace behind the industry enthusiasm. The town sits along a narrow island, with candy stores, ice cream shops and hotels tightly packed between the ocean side and the bay.

Most residents say they are all in for the jobs and the clean energy, but they’re mixed on whether turbines will be an irremovable eyesore.

Mayor Richard Meehan spent his summers on the boardwalk of Ocean City, working as a teenager in the 1960s in an arcade “in the center of the action” down on Ninth Street. He doesn’t want the city’s landscape to be lost.

“That sunrise will never be the same,” he said.

Meehan wants wind developers to move 33 miles from shore, where turbines would be invisible, and he often alludes to Virginia’s Dominion Energy Inc. wind project, which is proposed in a wind lease area 27 miles from the beach.

Maryland got the ball rolling in the offshore wind industry in 2013, when it enacted the Offshore Wind Act mandating that utilities buy offshore wind power. It set a minimum buffer of 10 miles to shore a few years later, which represents the edge of the federal lease area designated by BOEM and held by U.S. Wind.

Though current proposals are farther out, what’s to stop a developer from putting turbines just 10 miles off the shore of Ocean City, the mayor asked, noting that the distance was set when the biggest turbines were much smaller.

Ørsted and U.S. Wind have tried to dispel concerns about the larger turbine size. They argue their turbines would be sited on the far side of wind lease area boundaries, that larger turbines mean fewer structures and that blinking red lights would come on at night only when radar detected aircraft. Both were mum on any further projects within the lease areas.

U.S. Wind’s MarWin project — the one directly out from Ocean City — proposes up to 32 turbines about 17 miles from shore.

Ørsted’s Skipjack project north of Ocean City on the Delaware border would place about a dozen turbines 20 miles from shore.

Both have asked that they be allowed to potentially use General Electric Co.’s 12-megawatt Haliade-X turbine model. At 853 feet, the model is the largest on the market.

The companies argue that the state’s original approval acknowledged that technology was changing and the developments would take advantage of the best technology available.

‘Change of any sort’

Multiple state and local officials asked the Public Service Commission to hold a full evidentiary hearing before approving the new turbines.

“This is one of those could have, should have moments,” said Worcester County Commissioner Joseph Mitrecic at the Saturday hearing, adding he didn’t want to regret how offshore wind had been handled years from now when it would be too late to change.

The commission didn’t offer a decision at the hearing, which was meant only to gather public comments.

Down on the boardwalk, no one was talking about wind turbines and landscapes.

Surfers shrugged off the topic, unsure of what the turbines would look like.

Jeffrey Burka and his husband, Marc Bernstein, laughed off the anti-wind arguments they’d heard, asking if the people worried about the perfect view were also concerned by the planes buzzing over the beach announcing happy hour specials.

“People don’t want change of any sort,” Bernstein said as Burka raised an enormous stingray kite into the air.

The couple own property in Ocean City but live in the Washington area. They were more concerned by climate change than the view.

Wind farms, Bernstein said, “have to go somewhere.”