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Post-hearing briefs mostly support larger offshore wind turbines

OCEAN CITY – Independent stakeholders in one of two offshore wind projects appear to have little concern with the significantly larger turbines selected, according to briefs filed with the Maryland Public Service Commission following a hearing last month.

In June, the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) held an evidentiary hearing on the proposed change in wind turbine size for Orsted’s Skipjack project off the coast of Ocean City. The evidentiary hearing was called when Skipjack announced its intention to switch from the previously proposed eight-megawatt turbines to the much larger 12-megawatt turbine, now believed to be the largest commercial wind turbine available.

When Skipjack moved to the 12-megawatt turbine, the Town of Ocean City urged the PSC to hold an evidentiary hearing on the proposed turbine change. After a well-attended public hearing in Ocean City in January, the PSC agreed to hold the evidentiary hearing and it took place virtually in early June.

Last week, several weeks after that evidentiary hearing, the interested and participating parties filed post-hearing briefs with the PSC outlining their positions on the issues at hand. Naturally, the Town of Ocean City and Skipjack stuck to their long-held positions, but perhaps the most interesting conclusions came in the briefs filed by neutral third parties. For example, in its brief filed last week, the staff of the PSC agreed with Skipjack’s contention moving to the larger turbines will result in fewer turbines moved further out in the approved Wind Energy Area (WEA).

“The decision to increase the size of the wind turbines from eight megawatts to 12 megawatts will reduce the number of wind turbines needed for the 120-megawatt project from 15 to 12 or fewer turbines,” the brief reads. “By reducing the number of turbines, the distance from the Maryland shoreline to the nearest turbine could be increased from 19.5 miles to 22.7 miles.”

In its brief, the PSC concluded despite the proposed change in turbine height, the Skipjack project still met the standards laid out in the state’s legislation approved seven years ago.

“The increase in wind turbine size thus is not only consistent with the Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act of 2013, but it would also reduce the impact upon the environment and should reduce total costs of the project to Maryland ratepayers,” the brief reads.

The town of Ocean City has contended Skipjack and its parent company Ørsted have not always kept city officials and its residents in the loop on the changing plans. In its brief, the PSC staff did take Skipjack to task for its apparent lack of transparency.

“It is clear that Ocean City considers that Skipjack has failed to-date to provide adequate outreach and consultation with the City Council of Ocean City,” the brief reads. “To prevent this from continuing to be an issue, Skipjack needs to improve its outreach as required, including adequate outreach required for any changes to the offshore wind project and the achievement of any milestones in its licensing and approval, construction and operation.”

The Maryland Energy Administration

(MEA) also filed its post-evidentiary hearing brief with the PSC last week. The MEA brief acknowledges Skipjack’s proposed change in turbine height is significant, but points out the developer’s intent is to alter the layout of the wind farm to minimize its visual impacts.

“The primary concern regarding the change in turbine is the increase in height and size of the 12-megawatt model compared to the eight-megawatt model,” the brief reads. “The town of Ocean City in particular has expressed serious concerns that increased visibility of the turbines could dissuade tourists, who come to enjoy the beach, Boardwalk and ocean views, from visiting. However, related to the change in the turbine model is Skipjack’s proposed change to the layout of the project.”

The MEA brief points out despite the change in size, the Skipjack project always included at least some visibility from the shoreline. The MEA also stated it had few concerns with the change in turbine height.

“It is not disputed that the Skipjack project will have an impact on the viewshed, but this existed even with the use of the eight-megawatt turbine,” the brief reads. “Due to the fact there appears to be no additional impact to the viewshed, which will likely be impacted less by the 12-megawatt turbines, MEA finds little to no issue with Skipjack’s selection of the Haliade-X turbine.”

The MEA brief suggests Skipjack make every effort to implement radar-enabled systems on the tops of the offshore wind turbines to eliminate the need for emergency beacons to flash all of the time overnight. Like the PSC staff, the MEA did take Skipjack to task somewhat for the perceived shortcomings in outreach and interaction with the town of Ocean City.

“For the reasons provided herein, Skipjack’s decision to use the Haliade-X 12-megawatt turbine with a reduced project layout and footprint can be supported,” the brief reads in conclusion. “In addition, MEA recommends that Skipjack incorporate a radar-enabled ADLS system into the Skipjack wind project and continue conversations with the local community to minimize and mitigate any negative impacts to the viewshed.”

In its own post-evidentiary hearing, the Town of Ocean City held close to most of its positions stated from the beginning and since the proposed change in wind turbine height was announced.

“The commission required Skipjack to use the ‘best commercially-reasonable efforts to minimize the daytime and nighttime viewshed impacts’ of its offshore wind project,” the Ocean City brief reads. “The commission recognized there is strong public interest in ensuring that the impact to Ocean City’s viewshed is minimized to the fullest extent possible. In now seeking to use 12-megawatt turbines that are more than 200 feet taller than the eight-megawatt turbines it previously intended to use, Skipjack must show that it has used the best commercially-reasonable efforts to minimize the viewshed impacts of these supersized turbines.”

Ocean City’s brief points out Skipjack has said it intends to use fewer turbines perhaps further offshore, but the company has not made any guarantees, nor are any safeguards in place in the PSC approval except for the approved perimeter of the WEA.

“Even now, after the evidentiary hearing, Skipjack is not providing a definitive location of the turbines, nor is it stating with any certainty the number of turbines it will use,” the town’s brief reads. “Though Skipjack claims it intends to build 12-megawatt turbines either 21.5 miles or 22.7 miles from the Ocean City shore, there is nothing stopping Skipjack from deciding it wants to move the 12-megawatt turbines closer, to, for instance, 18 miles from shore, 15 miles from shore or even 10 miles from shore.”

For its part, Skipjack said in its own brief submitted last week the height change will greatly improve the projects efficiency while reducing the visual impact on the resort’s viewshed.

“Significantly, it is uncontested that Skipjack’s turbine selection will result in the need for fewer turbines, that the project will be located further away from Maryland’s shore, and that it will occupy less of the visible horizon than the turbine layout used by Skipjack as a design proxy in its 2016 application,” the Skipjack brief reads. “For these and other reasons, Skipjack respectfully requests that the commission enter an order that no further action is necessary regarding Skipjack’s turbine selection.”