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Public poses questions about proposed wind-farm project

Members of the public filled the auditorium at Indian River High School on Tuesday, Nov. 19, for an informational meeting regarding the proposed Skipjack Wind Farm project and related proposals for a transmission facility and improvements at Fenwick Island State Park.

The transmission facility, as proposed, would be built on a 1.5-acre site on the bay side of the park, and would connect the power brought to shore, via underground cable, to the existing power grid.

In return for that, the developer of the wind farm, Danish renewable energy firm Orsted, has offered to provide a new bi-level parking facility on the ocean side, in addition to a new office for the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce, a playground, pickleball courts, housing for lifeguards, upgraded concessions, an amphitheater, office/classroom space, walking trails and an elevated walkway across Route 1.

The cost of the proposed work at the park, to be borne by Orsted, has been estimated at $18 million.

Since the project was made public at an open house at Fenwick Island Town Hall on Oct. 2, concerns have been voiced over the potential impact of the wind farm itself, as well the park projects on the area around it.

Tuesday’s meeting was arranged by state Rep. Ronald Gray and state Sen. Gerald Hocker. Representatives from the state Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control and Orsted were on hand to answer questions.

DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin told the crowd at the beginning of the meeting that the much-discussed Memorandum of Understanding between DNREC and Orsted, signed in July and made public in recent weeks through Freedom of Information Act requests by citizens, is not legally binding.

“There is no legally enforced agreement between DNREC and Orsted,” Garvin said.

“The MOU is the beginning of public discussion,” on the projects, he clarified.

Garvin said that, as far as the wind farm project itself, “There is nothing we have a role in with regards to the wind farm, other than it landing on park land.”

Joy Weber, development manager for Orsted, said that the future of the Skipjack wind farm – which now includes 17 turbines that are 853 feet tall and would be located 17 miles off the Delaware coast – now depends on Delaware’s approval to bring the power onshore at the park. Without that approval, Weber said, “We go back to the drawing board.”

Drawings supplied by Orsted show the turbines barely visible from the shore during the day, but red lights on the turbines would be clearly visible offshore at night.

Raymond Bivens, director of Delaware State Parks, said the proposed improvement effort at the park addresses safety concerns caused by the current parking configuration.

“There is no way to get an ambulance in and out of this park” currently, Bivens said.

Bivens said the state budget for the past six years has allotted $2.8 million per for improvements across the entire state parks system. In the latest ranking of such projects, Fenwick Island State Park is ranked second, with a total of $2 million in proposed improvements.

Most of those who spoke at the Tuesday meeting made statements against the proposed wind farm and the park project, rather than asking questions.

Janet Dudley-Eshbach, who owns a home in Fenwick Island, called the plans for the park “beyond short-sighted. It’s just plain wrong.

“We do not need pickleball courts to be built on fragile wetlands,” Dudley-Eshbach said, urging DNREC to “take the courageous path, however difficult” and deny Orsted access to the park.

Garvin responded that “we will not be building in any wetlands” if the project moves forward. Matt Drew, project engineer for Orsted, added that no beach would be disturbed as part of the project.

Several members of the public expressed confusion over why the power cable is proposed to come ashore in Delaware when it is slated to provide power for Maryland customers. Weber responded that “it’s a straight line from the [Skipjack] lease area to the coast.”

She then commented that “It’s no secret that Ocean City is not a fan of offshore wind,” referencing opposition to the project in the neighboring Maryland beach town.

Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan responded later in the meeting that, actually, Ocean City doesn’t oppose offshore wind.

“We support them, farther offshore,” he said.

Meehan said he was attending the meeting “to support your efforts and your concerns” about the Skipjack project and the impact on Delaware’s beach communities.

“Your view will be changed forever” once the turbines are constructed, Meehan warned, noting that the turbines currently planned, known as Haliade-X 12MW, are “three and a half times the height of the tallest building in Ocean City.”

Meehan also urged Delaware officials to study the impacts of the project carefully before agreeing to allow the energy to be brought onshore.

“We need further study about how these cables are going to make landfall,” he said.

Weber said the area slated for the turbines, which would be placed 1 mile apart, is dictated partially by shipping channels off the coast. While she said the current lease area could support more turbines in the future, she was unable to provide a number of exactly how many, or how additional turbines would impact the view from the beaches.

“It depends on how many contracts we can win,” and on how offshore wind technology evolves, she said.

In response to concerns expressed about the potential economic impact of the wind farm and the park project, Garvin said, “We have not independently looked at that,” but added that in one study, the number of people who said they would be more likely to visit Delaware beaches with or without wind farms “is about a wash.”

While Maryland’s government has committed to supporting wind farms in general, awarding Offshore Renewable Energy Credits to Orsted in May 2017, Delaware has yet to throw support behind the industry.

Garvin said Tuesday that the State’s position had been “to see what happens in Maryland, to see what happens in New Jersey,” where wind farms are currently in planning stages, though Delaware was the first state in the region to approve offshore wind-energy plans.

“We’re still looking at when and how Delaware can get into the wind conversation,” Garvin said.

The Skipjack wind farm, if approved, is slated to begin operating in 2022. A proposed project off the coast of New Jersey is planned to be operational by 2024.

Weber said that, unlike cables at Orsted’s wind farm offshore from Block Island in Rhode Island, for which the cable was laid on top of the sand, resulting in storm-related exposure issues, the cable at Fenwick Island would be buried sufficiently that it could not be exposed during storms.

In response to questions about the durability of the turbines, Drew said they would be constructed to withstand Category 5 hurricanes. He added that the turbines would be shut down during severe storms. Drew also said Orsted would set up an escrow account to cover the cost of decommissioning the turbines when they reach the end of their useful life. That would be in about 25 years, according to Weber.

Mohammad Akhter of Selbyville expressed the concerns that many in the audience seemed to feel – that there are many unknowns about the Skipjack project at this point.

“I support wind farms,” he said, “but I have no trust that all these things you say you will do, you will do.”

“Is this the camel’s nose that is coming in here?” Akhter asked – referring to the project as potentially the first of many.

Hocker announced that, due to the extent of concerns from citizens in the weeks since the October open house, the public comment period on the proposed project has been extended until Dec. 2. The public can register their comments on the project at www.destateparks.com. A survey can be found by clicking the link titled “Improvement Plan for Fenwick Island” near the bottom of the state parks home page.

Information from Orsted on the Skipjack wind farm project can be found online at https://us.orsted.com/Wind-projects. The progress of the project through the Maryland Public Service Commission review process can also be tracked on that agency’s website, at https://www.psc.md.us.