State environmental officials may soon lease public parkland to an offshore wind energy company in exchange for millions of dollars in new amenities at Delaware’s southernmost beach.
The Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control has signed an initial memorandum of understanding with Ørsted, an offshore wind company based in Denmark, to discuss leasing up to 1.5 acres in Fenwick Island State Park. Ørsted would use park property to build an interconnection facility that will connect power generated by the yet-to-be-built Skipjack Wind Farm to the electrical grid.
In exchange for leasing the public land, the Denmark-headquartered company would fund improvements at the park, with the state now suggesting more than a dozen projects worth upward of $18 million.
Those projects could include a two-level parking garage, a pedestrian overpass that allows foot traffic to cross Coastal Highway from the ocean side to the bay side, connections for a trail or sidewalk system, two additional bathrooms, an amphitheater and a new local Chamber of Commerce building that would house the park’s visitors center, a small nature center and more.
“If the state was to build all of that, we’re confident it would be between $15 to $18 million,” said Delaware State Parks Director Ray Bivens. No state money would be used in the lease agreement projects, he said.
“Right now, it’s a beach parking lot with a bathhouse and a snack bar, and that’s what the park is all about,” he said. The state’s list of proposed improvements “tried to focus on safety and access issues,” he said.
Any new amenities – which Bivens said could bring the park additional revenue by increasing parking and programs – as well as the lease itself, have not yet been formally negotiated.
The options included in the proposed partnership will make a public debut at an open house on Wednesday as company and state officials showcase potential park improvement projects. The open house will be held from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Fenwick Island Town Hall at 800 Coastal Highway.
The Skipjack project is expected to build commercial-sized wind turbines about 17 miles off the coast of southern Delaware, according to Delmarva Now.
They likely will not be visible from the shore when weather is hazy, and it usually is during warm weather.
Jeremy Firestone, director at the University of Delaware’s Center for Wind Research, said Ørsted is planning to build new turbines produced by GE, which are much larger than what has been traditionally used. They could reach 850 feet in height, more than twice the size of Delaware’s only land-based commercial wind turbine at the University of Delaware’s campus in Lewes.
Offshore construction could begin as early as 2021, with the project ultimately providing enough electricity to power 35,000 homes on Maryland’s Eastern Shore as early as 2022, according to the company’s website.
“I know it’s a Maryland project, but Delaware is becoming a really great partner in this process,” said Joy Weber, Ørsted’s development manager for the Skipjack project.
Weber said the company considered connection points along the Delmarva coast, but connecting at Fenwick Island was the most direct option.
“If you draw a straight line from our wind farm to the shore, you arrive in Fenwick,” she said. “That gives us the shortest route from our wind farm to the shore, which leads to the least amount of cable to use and the least amount of disturbance to the ocean floor.”
A more formal agreement between Delaware officials and Ørsted, as well as relevant environmental and construction permits from both the state and federal governments, will be needed before the partnership can move forward.
Weber said the company is in a design phase and federal officials are reviewing the construction operations permit for the project, which was submitted in April. She said that process could take one to two years.
The idea of the partnership, said Bivens, is that Ørsted would build an interconnection facility, where they deliver the power from offshore wind turbines to the grid, on a bayside portion of Fenwick Island State Park.
The interconnection facility built by Ørsted would cover about 1 acre to 1.5 acres in the park. The lines from the wind turbine would have to be drilled underneath the beach and Coastal Highway to reach the facility.
While the electricity will feed into the grid there and provide power to people in places like Fenwick Island and nearby Delaware towns, Maryland will get the renewable energy credits for the project, Firestone said.
“Electrons go to whoever is closest,” he said. “So technically, who is going to be using it will be Delawareans. But the contract is with the people in Maryland.”
Bivens said there’s a proposal to include park amenities, such as a pickleball court or picnic area, on the roof of the facility so that no public recreational access is lost.
The interconnection facility and parking garage will likely be designed to be largely sheltered from the view of neighbors and travelers on Coastal Highway, he said.
“It’s very natural looking,” he said. “For us in parks, it’s fully about a potential park improvement project.”
Delmarva’s state of wind
In 2017, the Maryland Public Service Commission approved two offshore wind projects on the Delmarva coast.
One is the Skipjack project, and the other is proposed off the coast of Ocean City, Maryland. The OC wind farm planned to bring about 62 turbines about 17 nautical miles off Maryland’s coast. It met stark opposition from local officials and residents who feared it would spoil the view and hurt property values.
Previous reporting by Delmarva Now found that opposition has slowed the project, which was slated to run transmission lines through the Indian River Inlet to connect to NRG’s power plant near Millsboro.
Both projects have active federal leases, and both are still in early stages of planning and approvals.
Ørsted also is working on other American offshore wind projects proposed along the coasts of Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Virginia. It also operates the first commercial offshore wind farm on the East Coast, the Block Island project off the coast of Rhode Island.
Block Island and Skipjack were planned by a Rhode Island company called Deepwater Wind. It was bought by Ørsted last year for $510 million, Delmarva Now reported.
When the Delmarva projects were being proposed, Gov. John Carney created an Offshore Wind Working Group to study opportunities in the industry.
The working group held about a dozen meetings and workshops in 2017 and 2018 before producing a 37-page report of recommendations and requests for more research.
Delaware officials took more of a wait-and-see approach on getting involved in wind projects – until this proposed partnership between state parks and Ørsted came to light this fall.
Delmarva Now staff contributed to this story.