Ocean City Today

Turbines: all dressed up, but with nowhere to go

Harris amendment would move wind farms out of areas companies leased
By Brian Gilliland | Jul 27, 2017
Photo by: Submitted rendering The rendering in question

(July 28, 2017) Ever since the final public comment meeting at the end of March, Ocean City officials have been decrying the placement of offshore wind turbines leased in federal waters miles off the coast of the resort.

The ongoing conversation between the company, US Wind, and those same officials took a turn last week after Congressman Andy Harris (R-1) had an amendment accepted on the Interior Appropriations bill for next year.

The amendment would prohibit federal funding for inspectors to evaluate wind farm projects fewer than 24 nautical miles from the shoreline.

Paul Rich, project development director for the company, said those inspections are crucial for the project to hit its 2019 startup date.

“If there are no funds in 2018 — that’s a critical time, and would kill the project,” he said.

Rich called the amendment “unhelpful” and “not realistic,” on several fronts, but most glaringly, because 24 miles off the coast is largely outside the leasing area the company bought in 2014 for $8.7 million.

“The leasing area is shaped like a triangle — there’s space for maybe two turbines” at that distance, Rich said.

Behind the lease area is a shipping lane, and beyond that is open water — not evaluated or available for offshore wind leases through the agency responsible for developing those plans, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

The bureau started the ball rolling on offshore wind in Maryland in 2010 under a different proposal from a different company, with Ocean City’s direct involvement and support. The process ended with the auction in 2014.

To develop another leasing area the bureau would had have to start from scratch, potentially delaying projects for years. Also, current technology might not be compatible with the increasing depths of the ocean farther off the coast.

“The only request they had when we started in 2010 was to move it 10 miles offshore, then 12 and finally 17, because we were having a conversation and they can have their say,” Rich said.

Part of the Public Service Commission’s May decision to allow the project was that the company continue to engage with local officials.

But back in March, when Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan said he first saw renderings approximating what the farms might look like once they were ready to begin operation, he began to resist the project. He likened the offshore wind facility to “visual pollution.”

Rich said the renderings were available to mayor and City Council members in 2010 and 2014.

Councilman Tony DeLuca has been spearheading the resistance to the project, having made multiple motions to send letters requesting the distance be lengthened between resort and turbines. DeLuca was first elected in 2014, and may not have seen the previous renderings.

DeLuca’s requests go farther, literally and figuratively, than the Harris amendment, by requesting a buffer of 26 miles.

“I went to three engineers who didn’t know each other and asked at what distance the turbines would be invisible,” DeLuca said.

The engineers each returned with a figure of 26 miles, he said.

DeLuca had little sympathy for the lease argument, and said the company could use 400-foot turbines instead of 600-foot turbines, or develop a new lease east of the shipping lanes.

Rich said the turbine generators — the visible element of the devices, are just 325 feet above sea level. By adding in the length of the blades, which are 245 feet long, the turbines reach 570 feet above sea level.

Rich said the blades are “barely visible” from 17 miles away, and the 325-foot tall generators are the primary visual element of the technology.

The turbines are also required to be fitted with lights, which serve several purposes, including nighttime visibility.

But parts of the conversation are continuing. Rich said he received a letter from the city with the idea to visit Block Island, Rhode Island, where an operating offshore wind farm now exists, and view it from a distance of 15 miles away to check the visibility during the course of a day.

“I thought it was a huge step to truly evaluate the project,” Rich said.

Ocean City Manager Doug Miller said that visit may yet still occur after the season. In the meantime, he said he would be in the area for a family event and would conduct an independent inspection of Block Island this week.

Potential impact to real estate values also have some concerned, and were cited by Harris as another reason for the delay.

There is one study, released about a year ago by the University of North Carolina State University, which concluded offshore wind farms would have a substantial impact on tourism there, not all of it negative.

The study concluded that no one was willing to pay a premium over what is currently charged for a vacation rental with a view of a wind farm, and tourists were likely to choose a rental without a view of turbines rather than one that did if the turbines were less than five miles offshore.

On the other hand, the study also concluded those impacts were far less important once the turbines got eight or so miles from shore, far less distance than is being offered by both proposals currently before the state.

Real estate agents in Block Island said in May that offshore wind is “not even a blip on our radar” of potential impacts to values. Similarly, an agent in Maui, Hawaii said there was some consternation about wind energy when the turbines were installed, but generally, people didn’t care very much about the turbines. Maui has onshore, but no offshore, wind turbines.

“My concern is the Harris amendment stifles ongoing and productive conversations, and I’d hate for that to end while there is debate or action around an amendment,” Rich said. “The amendment says all of that should stop while we gather ourselves, but if we do that, it all ends.”

Deepwater Wind, the company responsible for the other wind farm emplacement approved for waters off Ocean City, declined to comment.  this story.

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