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Offshore wind turbine location concerns resurface

OCEAN CITY – The long-dormant debate about the development of offshore wind energy farms off the coast and their distance from shore bubbled to the surface at this week’s Mayor and Council meeting.

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, or ORECs, to the two successful bidders seeking to develop wind energy farms off the coast of the resort including the US Wind project and the Skipjack project.

From the beginning, Ocean City has not opposed, but rather supported, the development of clean renewable energy off the coast. The town’s concern from the beginning has been the proposed distance of the wind turbines from the coast and the potential impact on the offshore viewsheds. The issue has been debated at nearly every level and every step in the regulatory process.

After a relatively quiet period on the offshore wind farm front for several months, the issue arose again at the close of Tuesday’s council meeting when Councilman Frank Knight asked for an update on Mayor Rick Meehan’s recent letter to Gov. Larry Hogan and copied to the town’s state and federal elected officials raising concerns about new developments in the potential locations of additional wind turbines in the US Wind project.

The Clean Energy Jobs Act of 2019 created the possibility for additional OREC subsidies, essentially tripling the ORECs already awarded to the US Wind and Skipjack projects in 2013. Although the ORECs awarded in 2013 were limited to projects between 10 and 30 miles off the coast of Ocean City, US Wind repeatedly promised the first line of wind turbines would be no closer to the coast than 17 miles.

Ocean City repeatedly asked US Wind to install turbines no closer than 26 miles, or a distance from which they would not be visible from the resort’s coast. Now, after a discussion at the close of Tuesday’s meeting, and a letter sent to Hogan and elected representatives, it appears US Wind is considering utilizing a portion of the existing footprint even closer than the 17 miles originally projected.

The 2019 legislation allows for ORECs to be awarded as far as 80 miles off the coast, but that would require establishing additional lease areas. The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has the authority to establish new lease areas even further off the coast.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Meehan said town officials had conversations with US Wind about exploring the additional lease area with BOEM, but the company appears set on utilizing the existing lease area’s footprint, which could lead to taller turbines even closer to shore than originally anticipated. Knight on Tuesday asked for an update on the letter to Hogan and the town’s representatives and Meehan explained the origin of the letter.

“The letter is the result of a conversation we finally had with US Wind,” he said. “During the conversation, we point-blank asked them about their intention to build turbines closer than 17 miles off the coast, which is the distance they have always stated would be the closest offshore, and the answer was yes. In fact, if they were the winners of the additional ORECs, the lease area would be about 12 miles off our coast. They would be building turbines in those areas.”

Meehan said the alleged response from US Wind prompted his letter to Hogan and Ocean City’s representatives in Annapolis and Washington.

“As a result, we’ve sent letters to all of our federal elected officials,” he said. “We’re working with out lawyers to make sure they are very aware of the situation.”

Ocean City has contended from the beginning if the offshore wind companies were given an inch, they would ultimately take a mile.

“What we’ve contended all along is exactly what’s going to happen if, in fact, they are allowed to proceed,” he said. “We are on top of that and we’re going to take every measure we can.”

City Manager Doug Miller pointed out the potential wind turbine area closer to shore could impact an ecologically, economically and medically important horseshoe crab sanctuary. Local fishermen harvest horseshoe crabs because their blood has unique properties used in the creation of injectable medicines for humans, including COVID vaccines.

“We also have a potentially dangerous situation because where the turbines could go is in a horseshoe crab sanctuary, especially now with COVID and the need for blood those crabs provide,” he said.

Meehan said the letter requests BOEM to consider approving an additional lease area for offshore wind further from the resort’s coast.

“The goal is to try to get BOEM to establish an additional lease area further to the east to accommodate the additional ORECs,” he said. “Once that area is established, hopefully, they’ll be able to move what is being proposed further from shore. It’s as much as a full-court press as we can put on.”

In the letter, Meehan said he wrote to the secretaries of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Maryland Energy Administration in 2018 requesting a process for creating a new Maryland Offshore Renewable Energy lease area further off the coast of Ocean City be initiated as soon as possible.

“I made this request with the unanimous approval of the Ocean City Council in an effort to create an alternative location for installation of wind turbines that would allow the state to meet our important clean energy goals without jeopardizing Ocean City’s economy,” the letter reads. “Unfortunately, after two years, no efforts have been made by either agency to begin this process.”

In the letter, Meehan wrote the town is already aware of US Wind’s intentions to utilize more of the existing lease area footprint without pursuing a new lease area further from the coast.

“The only available option for the additional turbines to support the 2019 ORECs will be locations within the existing Maryland lease area as close as 12 miles from our coast,” the letter reads. “We know that US Wind had already initiated the federal permit process to accomplish exactly that using the GE 12-megawatt turbines that stand over 850 feet tall. This cannot be allowed to happen. Turbines that close to our shore will destroy Ocean City tourism and property values.”

The letter urges BOEM to act quickly on establishing and approving a new Maryland lease area as far as 30 miles off the coast. In the letter, Meehan said during a BOEM briefing with Eastern Shore delegation in 2018, the agency said a new lease area could be created, bid and awarded within two years.

“We will only get one chance to get this right, and by starting this process now, we have that chance to develop a clean energy project that is a win-win for everyone.”