Senator chairing hearings accused of trying to ‘derail’ Bluewater plan
A stalled plan for a $1.6 billion offshore wind farm drew more than 100 people to a Senate hearing in Dover on Thursday, with some branding the process a brazen effort to derail the venture and others dismissing wind turbines as a costly mistake.
The comments came during the first of five public hearings on Bluewater Wind LLC’s proposal that are scheduled through early March by Senate Energy and Transit Committee Chairman Harris B. McDowell III, D-Wilmington North.
McDowell said he was asked to schedule the sessions after a General Assembly delegate declared last month there was no consensus to support an order that Delmarva Power sign a 25 year contract with Bluewater.
“What does it take in Delaware for the government to respond to the will of the people?” asked Chad Tolman, energy chairman for the Sierra Club Delaware Chapter.
University of Delaware engineering professor Charles Boncelet said in contrast that offshore wind turbines would still require conventional fuel backup and would drive up consumer costs. A report issued last year estimated that the project could increase Delmarva Power’s “standard offer” customer rates by $14 a month at first and more than $6 per month over the long term. Costs could be lower if spread to other Delmarva and Delaware customers.
“Wind power does not help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil, does not reduce our need to build conventional power plants, does not reduce pollution and is more expensive than other choices,” Boncelet said.
Proponents of the project sought to have it resurrected when the General Assembly opened its session last month. But the legislators adjourned for budget hearings without acting. Some charge that McDowell’s hearings are an effort to further delay the project and build opposition to it.
Delaware Audubon Society Conservation Chairman Nicholas A. DiPasquale accused McDowell of “trying to derail the offshore wind energy project” and open a debate over green energy alternatives, such as cheaper land-based wind turbines.
McDowell has rejected the accusation, and said that Senate leaders asked him to hold the sessions. He said he supports renewable energy, including wind power, and said that questions remain about the cost and terms of the Bluewater deal.
The committee’s report will summarize all points of view so legislators and the public won’t have to sort through exaggerated claims by the parties, McDowell said.
“The purpose of the hearings is to get all the information out without it coming from a single source, without corroboration,” McDowell said.
The committee is expected to issue a report in early April that will summarize the facts and make recommendations about which alternative energy options make the most sense for Delaware, McDowell said.
The Bluewater proposal would require Delmarva Power to sign a 25-year contract for a year-round average of 155 megawatts from a 150-turbine wind farm east of Rehoboth Beach. If the wind farm’s production falls short, a separate conventional natural gas or oil-fired generator would make up the difference.
McDowell said he does not oppose offshore wind farms, but is not convinced that a long-term contract is right for Delmarva and its ratepayers.
None of the wind ventures now proposed or under study in New Jersey, New York or Massachusetts offers developers a state-mandated, long-term contract.
All currently assume that wind investors will carry their own risks without public support and make their own deals with buyers.
New Jersey has offered up to $19 million in subsidies for suitable wind projects, with bids due on March 3.
But last month, that state’s Office of Clean Energy declared that power purchase deals for any New Jersey offshore wind farm were “anticipated to be a private contract” between the wind farm and buyers, without a need for legislative backing or mandated contracts.
Bluewater spokesman Jim Lanard said Thursday that officials with the company “are working almost around the clock” to prepare a New Jersey bid.
Lanard declined to say how Bluewater would build a New Jersey offshore wind farm without the kind of guaranteed long-term contract that it wants in Delaware.
Thursday’s hearing was reserved strictly for members of the public and citizen groups, McDowell said. Elected officials and political candidates were ineligible to testify at the initial session.
Bernadette Winston of the Kingswood Community Center said lawmakers should consider low-income residents when considering alternatives. She questioned calls to make Delaware the first in the nation to have an offshore wind project.
“If that is what is driving this, then we should all think twice before making us first and placing the burden of being first on the back of those I serve daily,” Winston said.
Others testified that the PSC review repeatedly allowed Bluewater to amend its plan, while barring alternatives by other bidders. University of Delaware professor and researcher Edward Ratledge said bills could rise more than $55 monthly for customers with electric heat.
If the Bluewater project were to be approved, Delmarva has said it might fight the contract in court. The utility, which already has taken steps required to protect its right to sue, considers Bluewater’s price too high. The company recently announced that it is seeking its own bids for wind or other green energy supplies.
By Jeff Montgomery
8 February 2008
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