Local residents and environmental advocates aren’t happy that a utility company is considering using Assateague Island as the terminus of an electrical transmission line carrying power generated by offshore wind turbines.
Ocean City attorney Hugh Cropper IV wrote to Atlantic Wind Connection on behalf of a small group of residents who don’t want the proposed high-voltage line to run through Assateague Island. They cite the island as being pristine, undeveloped and home to many of environmentally protected birds – not to mention the famous island ponies.
“My clients believe it would have a catastrophic environmental effect to bring a power line across that island, even if it’s bored underneath,” he said. “Leave Assateague alone. It’s one of the few pristine places left on the East Coast. I just can’t imagine putting a big transformer on there.”
The group does not oppose offshore wind power, Cropper said, but stands opposed to the use of the sea shore in such a project.
Markian Melnyk is president of Atlantic Grid Development, the developer of the Chevy Chase, Md.-based Atlantic Wind Connection project. He said the high-voltage connection would lie under the sea floor and run parallel to the coast.
Melnyk said the project, projected to cost $6 billion and come online by 2019, aims to efficiently deliver offshore wind energy from future projects built off the coasts of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey.
Such wind farms would be built by other companies, and would connect to Atlantic Wind Energy’s high-capacity transmission line. It would serve those wind farms by saving them from having to build individual lines across the ocean floor or beaches to connect to land.
“It’s like a giant power strip offshore where they can plug in, instead of hauling their own extension cords all the way to the grid. It uses one set of very high-capacity cables instead of multiple sets of cables,” Melnyk said.
He said his company is at the stage where its trying to figure out the best places to route the cable, and environmental laws require them to talk about both preferred and alternate spots to do this.
He said they’d prefer to land the transmission line somewhere in or near Ocean City. He called a possible site at Assateague Island State Park a “technical alternative.”
“There’s a lot of challenges to doing projects in the marine environment. We didn’t propose to put a cable there – we were just in the information gathering mode, of trying to understand something that’s technically feasible,” he said.
Development of Maryland’s offshore wind industry is a going to be long-term endeavor, Melnyk said. They’re looking to get permit applications in next year, start construction in 2015, and be in service for the project’s first phase by 2019.
“There’s not likely to be any activity in Maryland’s coastal zone for quite a while,” he said.
As for what’s next, the General Assembly would have to authorize offshore wind farms by statute. If Atlantic Wind Connection makes a deal with the state, they get authorized by the Maryland Public Service Commission and the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management before moving forward, according to Cropper.
Kathy Phillips, executive director of Assateague Coastal Trust, said her group has been following the issue for about two years, ever since legislation passed the General Assembly that would allow a submerged energy line to cross under state-owned properties for offshore wind.
“So obviously, that was targeting right here,” she said. “I think it’s safe to say that even two years ago, somebody had their eye on this island, and it’s worth the effort now to keep an even more diligent watch.
She also expressed concern that a transmission line through Worcester County may cross wooded areas protected by conservation easements, and through sensitive bays and creeks.
“We think about this island 10, 20, 30 years out. This is a barrier island. This is not stationary, so at some point there’s going to be more work. You just don’t know. It’s like, why even open that Pandora’s Box? Bring it ashore north of here where that part of the island is not moving.
Offshore wind has “tremendous potential” to scale up on the Atlantic coast and become a major source of zero-carbon renewable energy, according to Theo Spencer with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate and Clean Air Program.
He said wind farms on the Atlantic Coast could generate $200 billion in new economic activity, and create tens of thousands of jobs.
The U.S. has no offshore wind projects up and running, and has only approved one, the Cape Wind Project, which would be sited in federal waters off Massachusetts, Spencer said.
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