OCEAN CITY – Potential changes to the original approval of two offshore wind energy projects off the coast of Ocean City are now under further scrutiny after state officials re-opened the public comment period earlier this month.
In 2017, the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) approved two offshore wind energy projects off the coast of Ocean City. Technically, the PSC awarded Offshore Renewable Energy Credits (ORECs) to the two companies seeking to develop wind farms off the coast of the resort including the US Wind project and the Skipjack project. The awarding of ORECs was a necessary first step in what has become a lengthy approval process.
However, with advancements in technology, the height of the proposed turbines has increased exponentially since the original PSC approval in 2017, prompting Ocean City officials and the Maryland Energy Administration (MEA) to request a re-opening of the original approval proceedings. For example, Orsted’s Skipjack project has now committed to using 12-megawatt wind turbines described as the “world’s largest offshore wind turbine.”
For its part, US Wind has not finalized a decision on the turbines proposed for its project, although the company has stated publicly and in written correspondence to the PSC it is considering turbines considerably larger than the four-megawatt units first proposed. However, US Wind has also said going with the larger model would allow the company to reduce the number of turbines by half from 64 to 32, which, in turn, would give the company more leeway in the distance the turbines would be constructed from the shoreline.
It is uncertain what steps the PSC will take next, although the state agency does have the authority to rescind the original approvals or amend them. In an official filing outlining the re-opening of the public comment period, the PSC said filings earlier this fall made it clear both companies are moving toward the larger turbines. It’s important to note the PSC approval was based on the “best available technology” when the ORECs were awarded and in the years since, technological advances have significantly increased the size of the proposed turbines.
“On September 24 and October 1 respectively, Skipjack Offshore Energy and US Wind filed non-confidential letters notifying the Maryland Public Service Commission to a change in the turbine selection size originally anticipated for use in the two commission-approved offshore wind projects,” the PSC notice reads. “Specifically, Skipjack notified the commission that it now plans to use General Electric’s Haliade-Z 12-megawatt wind turbines for its approved offshore wind project.”
The town of Ocean City wasted no time reiterating its feelings about the growing size of the proposed turbines.
“This massive increase in size profoundly changes the Ocean City viewscape, the critical, natural and economic development asset of this historic resort town,” the town’s response reads. “The new super-sized turbines will dominate and forever change the iconic ocean views, creating serious economic, natural and environmental harm to Maryland’s largest resort.”
Ocean City’s response points out the PSC has acknowledged the increased height of the turbines warrants closer scrutiny of the original approvals.
“These new large-sized turbines are six times larger than the two-megawatt turbines originally proposed to Ocean City and double the size represented to the commission in the 2017 proceedings,” the town’s response reads. “These new sizes clearly constitute a material change in the applications presented to the commission in the 2017 proceedings. The commission has acknowledged as much.”
Ocean City’s response attempts to put the size of the proposed turbines in context in order to illustrate the potential impacts on the resort’s viewsheds.
“These massive 12-megawatt turbine towers, if approved, would become the world’s largest offshore wind turbines,” the town’s response reads. “The height of each turbine will approach 500 feet and the total height including the blades will exceed 850 feet. The blades themselves are 350 feet, or longer than a football field. In perspective, the tallest building in Ocean City is approximately 250 feet tall.”
Again, from the beginning, Ocean City has not opposed the development of offshore wind energy projects off its coast. However, the town has been in a prolonged battle to have the two approved companies to site their turbines as far as 26 miles from shore, or a distance believed to have the turbines not visible from the coast.
“The turbine towers will be plainly visible to the hundreds of thousands of beachgoers and property owners who are drawn to Ocean City’s oceanfront views or who live there year-round,” the town’s response reads. “The visual impact and associated negative affect on tourism, property values and the environment from these giant structures cannot be understated.”
Skipjack’s project would include the first line of turbines set at a distance of just under 20 miles off the coast and that project is sited more to the north of Ocean City. The US Wind project includes a first line of turbines at around 17 miles from the shore and that project is situated more directly in front of Ocean City. In its official response to the PSC, Skipjack attempted to minimize the potential impact on the resort’s viewshed.
“While the 12-megawatt turbine is taller than the eight-megawatt turbine, that height difference should be considered in the context of a project that is being developed almost 20 miles away from the shore,” Skipjack’s response reads. “In the side-by-side simulations, the 12-megawatt turbines are still difficult to perceive due to their distance from the viewer, their lack of contrast with the background sky and screening provided by curvature of the earth. Therefore, the use of 12-megawatt turbines continues to maintain the project’s positive viewshed attributes in light of the location of the project.”
In its written response, Skipjack officials assert the company is willing to continue to work with the stakeholders on the potential viewshed impacts.
“Skipjack recognizes the importance of ongoing consultations with coastal communities and other stakeholders concerned about viewshed impacts,” the company’s response reads. “Skipjack has regularly participated in meetings with towns and municipalities along the coast to discuss local project impacts and participated in industry and community events centered around development of offshore wind. These meetings have included discussion of the viewshed attributes of a 12-megawatt turbine given the planned location of the Skipjack OSW Project, as well as discussion of the ongoing federal permitting and environmental review processes.”
Again, for its part, US Wind has not reached a final decision on the height of the proposed turbines for its project, although the company has acknowledged the turbines will likely be considerable taller than what was first proposed.
“Although US Wind has not reached a final decision regarding turbine model selection, US Wind hereby notifies the commission that the four-megawatt turbine and other turbine units that were being evaluated in 2016 are no longer commercially available,” the company’s letter to the commission reads. “US Wind is now evaluating a variety of units with higher eight-, 10- and 12-megawatt ratings. US Wind will notify the commission of its final turbine selection decision as soon as it is made.”
In its written comments, US Wind attempts to reassure the PSC its project will not be substantially changed by the decision on the turbine heights.
“US Wind assures the commission that although the technology is rapidly changing with regard to turbines that are commercially available and ultimately to be selected by US Wind, the final turbine selection is expected to have no material impact on US Wind’s overall construction costs for its project,” the letter reads.