Clean energy advocates filled St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Ocean City last Saturday to discuss local and state government actions to push proposed wind farms farther offshore and to question officials about their support of that efforts.
The forum, sponsored by the Maryland Climate Coalition and the Sierra Club Maryland Chapter, focused on legislative attempts to revamp state Public Service Commission approvals of two projects that would install turbines within sight of the beach.
Now in the hearing phase in the General Assembly are measures backed by resort and county governments that would require these installations to be placed not at 17 nautical miles offshore as approved by the PSC, but 26 nautical miles out. That change in distance would kill its project, US Wind officials have said.
Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan told the audience that city officials met with the Eastern Shore legislative delegation in Annapolis a day earlier to discuss the situation. Also attending were James Bennett, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management renewable energy program manager and Rep. Andy Harris (R-1st).
“Congressman Harris said Ocean City and Worcester County should be the local jurisdiction that makes the final decision with regard to the location of these turbines,” Meehan said.
He also told the group that the project is divided into three phases, with only the first wave of turbines planned for 17 nautical miles offshore.
“They’re going for approval to build all three phases,” he said. “Phase two starts at 15 miles and phase three starts at 12.8 miles.”
While Ocean City supports renewable energy and wind power, Meehan said there are aesthetic concerns.
“We just ask that we have the support to have them moved further offshore, so they don’t take away that view of the horizon forever,” he said. “Why should future generations never have the opportunity to see what that view would look like without those turbines, when technology today can … easily move those further east.”
Meehan also noted a wind farm proposed outside Virginia Beach is slated to be built 26 nautical miles offshore, with comparable projects at nearly triple that distance in European waterways.
Councilman John Gehrig added that the council’s intent is not to kill the projects – the other wind farm off the local coast would be developed by Skipjack Wind – but to protect Ocean City’s tourism-based economy.
“We’re asking for the turbines to be moved back. We don’t know if the project would be killed,” he said.
“We have one thing that’s green, clean and natural left,” he said. “It’s the one reason that people come to Ocean City … and it’s that beach.”
In terms of the possible financial impact of project delays caused by the relocation consideration, Meehan said the wind energy area leasing process would need to be repeated.
St. Peter’s Pastor Gregg Knepp asked how long the project might be stalled because of that, considering that the initial approval process took nine years.
Meehan said revising the lease area could take two years, based on comments from the previous day’s meeting.
“It looks like the process could be expedited to actually relocate that lease area to the east,” he said. “Two years in a project that could be there for just about ever, to get it right so everybody’s concerns are addressed, makes sense to us and made sense to the congressman. That’s where we stand today.”
When asked by Knepp whether the mayor council had been involved when wind projects were proposed in 2009, Meehan replied that initial plans called for building turbines less than four miles offshore.
“We were able to get that extended to 10 miles off our coast,” he said.
The difference, Meehan said, is that height of turbines has since doubled.
“The turbines that are being proposed currently … the game changed but the distance didn’t,” he said.
Despite being involved in project discussions for more than half a dozen years, Meehan said city and business concerns spiked when the first visual renderings of the wind farms as seen from the beach were made public locally last March at a Public Service Commission meeting at Stephen Decatur Middle School.
“I stood up and held up those renderings and said, ‘this is much more dramatic than anybody had ever anticipated,’” he said.
Two months later, the PSC approved two lease areas off the Maryland and Delaware coasts.
Knepp also asked if there would be opportunity to continue negotiations regarding offshore distance after the project’s first phase is completed.
City Engineer Terry McGean said US Wind is seeking permits for all three phases.
“Once they permit that project, that’s it. Nobody gets to say any more,” he said.
US Wind’s project development director Paul Rich told the forum that if wind energy projects approved by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management were to fail, less environmentally friendly energy options could be pursued offshore.
“The same agency that leased us our wind energy area is the same agency that oversees offshore oil and gas leasing,” he said. “This area has been designated for offshore wind. If we didn’t develop it, then I think it could be reevaluated for other uses.”
After investing roughly $8.7 million for an 80-acre wind energy area lease, Rich said US Wind could investigate legal channels to recoup the fiscal outlay if the turbines failed to be constructed.
“If the project never went forward I’m sure there would be an interest from our company in recovering the lost investment,” he said. “I’m not going to entertain this issue until it’s in front of us.”
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