Wind turbines off Ocean City would be 200 feet taller than planned, prompting regulators to reopen debate

Source: By Scott Dance, Baltimore Sun • Posted: Sunday, November 17, 2019

A boat passes one of the wind turbines of the Block Island Wind Farm in 2016 three miles off the shores of Block Island, Rhode Island.
A boat passes one of the wind turbines of the Block Island Wind Farm in 2016 three miles off the shores of Block Island, Rhode Island. (DON EMMERT / AFP/Getty Images)

Developers of two wind farms off Maryland’s Atlantic coast say they will build turbines more than 200 feet taller than those initially proposed, intensifying fears of spoiled views from Ocean City and prompting state regulators to reopen discussion about the projects two years after blessing them.

The Maryland Public Service Commission is seeking new input on the potential impact of the windmills, roughly 20 miles from shore but several hundred feet higher than Baltimore’s tallest buildings. Potential impacts could include harm to birds or commercial fishing, though the strongest opposition has focused on an expectation that wind farms visible from shore would send tourists fleeing to beaches with pristine views in other states.

The state regulatory panel, which in 2017 authorized millions of dollars in ratepayer subsidies for the wind farms, issued its call days after Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration urged the five members to consider “additional review” of the projects. The Maryland Energy Administration, which leads state efforts to reduce reliance on foreign fuel and improve the environment, said a closer look is needed given concerns from Ocean City that offshore wind plans “have drastically changed since they were first approved.”

Officials declined to speculate on what action the commission could take once it reviews public comments, which are due Friday. But a spokeswoman said the panel has the authority to rescind or amend its order granting the wind farms ratepayer subsidies — money that is key to financing projects that together will cost more than $2 billion.

“It will change the horizon off the town of Ocean City forever.”

Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan

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Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan said he hopes commissioners step in to force the developers to move the projects farther from shore, lest the view from beaches look “like Star Wars.”

“It will change the horizon off the town of Ocean City forever,” Meehan said.

Representatives for the two projects, known as the U.S. Wind and Skipjack developments, said there is no reason to reconsider their proposals because they are upholding their end of the 2017 agreement with the commission. The panel’s order granting them ratepayer subsidies called for them to use the best technology available, acknowledging that the projects would take years and that turbine design would change over time, they noted.

The industry is moving toward larger turbines because they can reach stronger winds high off the ground and produce more energy. Plus, increasing the power capacity of one windmill can mean fewer of them need to be built, reducing installation and maintenance costs.

In increasing the size of its turbines from 541 feet to as much as 800 feet, U.S. Wind is reducing the number of turbines from 63 to 32. The developer says that with fewer turbines, it can build them farther from shore, expecting the closest ones to be 17 miles or more from the beach. The project is scheduled to start operating in 2023.

“This is yet another attempt to jeopardize the project in, I would say, a disingenuous way,” said Salvo Vitale, general counsel for U.S. Wind, a subsidiary of Italian company Renexia S.p.A.

The Skipjack farm, which has received less criticism from Ocean City but gotten some attention in Fenwick Island, Delaware, plans to build turbines 860 feet tall and begin operating them in 2022. Though that is 220 feet higher than originally planned, the developer, a subsidiary of Danish company Ørsted, has not changed its plans to build about 15 windmills at least 20 miles from the coast, to the north of the U.S. Wind development.

“When you’re looking at them at the distance you will be from shore, it’s pretty hard to tell the difference,” said Joy Weber, a development manager for Ørsted.

In Ocean City, town leaders are skeptical. Meehan said they support wind energy as long as it isn’t visible from the shore, and would rather regulators shift the projects farther offshore. Though U.S. Wind says its windmills will be at least 17 miles away from Ocean City beaches, the town is concerned future phases of its farm will be built closer — the state is allowing it to build within a zone that comes as close as 13.8 miles from shore.

Meehan said he sees thousands of people out on oceanfront balconies on summer mornings, drinking coffee and watching the sun rise. He thinks the silhouettes of wind turbines on the horizon would ruin that view.

“We’ve changed so many things in the world today,” he said. “To preserve something like that for future generations, we feel, is important.”

Residents and property owners fear that aside from driving tourists to vacation elsewhere, visible wind turbines could drive down real estate values. Michael James, managing partner of the 21-story Carousel Hotel at 118th Street and Coastal Highway, said he worries the sight of turbines four times taller than that building would ruin a view that people pay a premium for.

“A lot of people work a long time to come to Ocean City and buy a condo,” he said. “It is a resort where view matters.”

Offshore wind is supposed to be a key piece of a growing portfolio of renewable energy in Maryland. A state law passed in 2013 set a goal that it would eventually contribute 2.5% of the state’s energy supply. It allowed companies to collect money from residential and business energy bills to help pay for the projects, capping costs for residential customers to $1.50 a month.

This year, the General Assembly increased the state’s potential commitment to offshore wind more than fourfold as part of legislation calling for half the state’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2030. It added 88 more cents in potential monthly costs for ratepayers.

Now, the prospect of new hurdles for wind development off Maryland’s shores come as the industry looks to grow, but faces some uncertainty. In Virginia, a Dominion Energy wind farm is expected to become the second offshore wind to go online in U.S. waters next year, and the company last month announced plans for the largest wind farm in the U.S. pipeline, 27 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach.

At the same time, wind companies are watching closely after federal regulators stalled review of turbines proposed off Martha’s Vineyard, looking for signs of what could be ahead for projects in development in New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island.

Both Maryland projects still must file construction and operations plans with the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management for approval, a process the companies expect to begin next year. Andrew Gohn, eastern region director at the American Wind Energy Association, suggested that review is a more appropriate venue for concerns about any impacts the wind farms could have.

But others disagree — including in the Hogan administration. Mary Beth Tung, director of the state energy administration, wrote a letter last month urging the Public Service Commission to consider whether the introduction of taller, more powerful wind turbines changed “the facts underlying the original [o]rder” allowing the developers to collect money from ratepayers.

Three days later, the commission asked for public comments on the project — its first solicitation for such input on offshore wind since 2017.

A spokesman for Hogan declined to comment beyond Tung’s letter.

Separately from any review of the U.S. Wind and Skipjack projects, the commission soon could be faced with decisions about new offshore wind proposals. It’s in the process of hiring a consultant to review project applications, and under the state law passed this year, companies can submit proposals for a second round of offshore wind development anytime after Jan. 1.

Those projects could be as far as 80 miles from the coast — or as close as 10 miles.