Ocean City Today

Local lawmakers discuss turbines

Eastern Shore delegation meets with federal officials about wind farm legislation
By Greg Ellison | Mar 08, 2018
Photo by: Greg Ellison Ocean City Rick Meehan expresses ardent support for legislation to push proposed wind turbines further offshore, while Councilmembers Wayne Hartman, left, Tony DeLuca and Matt James absorb the points during a meeting of the Maryland General Assembly’s Eastern Shore delegation in Annapolis last Friday.

(March 9, 2018) With new legislation aimed at pushing offshore wind turbines farther out than the currently proposed 17 nautical miles, the Maryland General Assembly’s Eastern Shore delegation met with federal officials last Friday in Annapolis to ascertain if changes are feasible.

James Bennett, Bureau of Ocean Management renewable energy program manager, presented an overview of the wind energy area lease approval process, which got underway in 2010.

“It doesn’t happen in a backroom,” he said. “It’s a long-term process and a lot of people are involved.”

This week both SB1058 and HB1135, which would alter the distance requirement for turbines from between 10-30 nautical miles to not less than 26 nautical miles off the coast, have legislative hearings scheduled. A nautical mile is equal to 1.15 statute miles.

Delegate Christopher Adams (R-37) who is sponsoring HB1135, along with delegates Mary Beth Carozza (R-38C) and Charles Otto (R-38A), serves on the House Economic Committee, which has jurisdiction over energy policy.

Adams asked at what point during the lease approval process was the 10-nautical mile minimum distance established.

“That was the request we received through the task force process, as we understand it, from Ocean City,” he said.

In April 2010, a task force was created to examine the issue, which Bennett said continued to meet bi-yearly though 2013. Maryland leases were issued on Dec. 1, 2014.

Adams also asked if Ocean City officials were provided with renderings illustrating the visibility of turbines from shore during the task force process, “I don’t know,” Bennett said.

Bennett broke down the four-stage approval method for wind energy projects, which starts with a two-year planning and analysis phase. This is followed by up to two years to complete the lease process and an additional five years for site assessment. The final stage involves a construction and operation plan, which takes roughly two years to build, with an estimated quarter century of anticipated energy production.

“The site assessment plan is done and moving forward with still a little to go,” he said. “We are still not at the first day of the (construction plan) process.”

Bennett said obstacles remain that could make moving turbines at least 26 nautical miles problematic.

“There [are] two corridors of vessel traffic which converge just to the west of the [lease] area,” he said.

Additionally, Bennett said bathymetric charts indicate ocean depths increase to nearly 200 feet as the distance from shore grows.

“That’s where you get beyond the shallow shelf that is appropriate for the technology that we’re trying to deploy,” he said.

Adams asked where the shallow shelf area begins to drop off to those greater depths.

“In the neighborhood of 40 miles,” Bennett said.

Another concern Adams raised was the potential number of turbines that could be built within lease areas.

“There’s not a specific limit, however any proposal has to come to us as a construction and operation plan, and it has to be viewed from a number of different contexts, including environmental,” Bennett said. “It’s not a free and clear ability for the developer to just put whatever they like.”

Bennett also noted altering the turbine distances to 26-nautical miles or greater would start the approval clock over.

“We would have to conduct the planning and analysis, and go through a leasing process,” he said. “The same process where we are at now would begin after 2-4 years of starting … over again.”

Carozza asked if methods exist to expedite federal approval procedures.

“It would still be a lengthy process even if it was expedited,” Bennett replied.

Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan also pointed out that scale of the proposed turbines has changed significantly since the task force supported the original 10-nautical mile distance more than half a dozen years ago.

“At that time, those were two megawatt power and significantly smaller than what’s being proposed today,” he said.

Meehan got his first visual rendering of the turbines from the beach during a Public Service Commission meeting in late March 2017 at Stephen Decatur Middle School in Berlin. In May 2017, the state PSC approved two project off the Maryland and Delaware coasts, one by US Wind and the other by Skipjack Wind.

“I stood up and held up those renderings and said, ‘this is much more dramatic than anybody had ever anticipated,’” he said. “We’ve been in dialogue throughout but the ... game has changed.”

Andrew Gohn, who previously oversaw the state wind energy area site process for the Maryland Energy Administration, questioned that assertion.

“We’ve had a number of town halls [and] we’ve had posters that include visualizations and renderings that were available to the public,” he said. “At the time we heard nothing but approval when it was 10 miles out.”

While noting the American Wind Energy Association now employs him, Gohn said the National Park Service asked the wind energy task force to provide a visual buffer of 20 miles for Assateague National Seashore.

“We said, ‘Let’s place this where everybody can support it and at that time we had every indication of support from Ocean City,” he said. “With respect to the public process, the local jurisdictions did have the final say.”

Bennett said, however, even though the last phase for authorization is approaching, the time for changes has not passed.

“This is not a closed process [and] there are lots of opportunities for input,” he said. “We can be contacted at anytime by stakeholders.”

Because the topic of renewable energy, and specifically wind power, inspires passionate public support, Adams said he worries that the public’s perspective may change over time.

“I think 4-5 years down road when these projects go up, then people will start to realize what they actually are,” he said. “That kind of criticism coming at me as an elected official is what I’m very concerned about.”

Sen. Jim Mathias (D-38) said regardless of strong sentiments regarding the eventual distance of wind turbines, all sides seek an amicable agreement.

“The door has been open and it has been public and transparent and it continues to be,” he said. “Number one, I believe in the peoples’ voice and number two I know we can find a resolution.”

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