Tur­bine height re­opens de­bate

Panel seeks in­put as 200 feet added to Ocean City mills

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Scott Dance

De­vel­op­ers of two wind farms off Mary­land’s At­lantic coast say they will build tur­bines more than 200 feet taller than those ini­tially pro­posed, in­ten­si­fy­ing fears of spoiled views from Ocean City and prompt­ing state reg­u­la­tors to re­open dis­cus­sion about the projects two years af­ter bless­ing them. The Mary­land Public Ser­vice Com­mis­sion is seek­ing new in­put on the po­ten­tial im­pact of the wind­mills, roughly 20 miles from shore but sev­eral hun­dred feet higher than Bal­ti­more’s tallest build­ings. Po­ten­tial im­pacts could in­clude harm to birds or com­mer­cial fish­ing, though the strong­est op­po­si­tion has fo­cused on an ex­pec­ta­tion that wind farms vis­i­ble from shore would send tourists flee­ing to beaches with pris­tine views in other states. The state reg­u­la­tory panel, which in 2017 au­tho­rized mil­lions of dol­lars in ratepayer sub­si­dies for the wind farms, is­sued its call days af­ter Gov. Larry Ho­gan’s ad­min­is­tra­tion urged the five mem­bers to con­sider “ad­di­tional re­view” of the projects. The Mary­land En­ergy Ad­min­is­tra­tion, which leads state ef­forts to re­duce re­liance on for­eign fuel and

im­prove the en­vi­ron­ment, said a closer look is needed given con­cerns from Ocean City that off­shore wind plans “have dras­ti­cally changed since they were first ap­proved.”

Of­fi­cials de­clined to spec­u­late on what ac­tion the com­mis­sion could take once it re­views public com­ments, which were due Fri­day. But a spokes­woman said the panel has the au­thor­ity to re­scind or amend its or­der grant­ing the wind farms ratepayer sub­si­dies — money that is key to fi­nanc­ing projects that to­gether will cost more than $2 bil­lion.

Ocean City Mayor Rick Mee­han said he hopes com­mis­sion­ers step in to force the de­vel­op­ers to move the projects far­ther from shore, lest the view from beaches look “like Star Wars.”

“It will change the hori­zon off the town of Ocean City for­ever,” Mee­han said.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives for the two projects, known as the U.S. Wind and Skip­jack de­vel­op­ments, said there is no rea­son to re­con­sider their pro­pos­als be­cause they are up­hold­ing their end of the 2017 agree­ment with the com­mis­sion. The panel’s or­der grant­ing them ratepayer sub­si­dies called for them to use the best tech­nol­ogy avail­able, ac­knowl­edg­ing that the projects would take years and that tur­bine de­sign would change over time, they noted.

The in­dus­try is mov­ing to­ward larger tur­bines be­cause they can reach stronger winds high off the ground and pro­duce more en­ergy. Plus, in­creas­ing the power ca­pac­ity of one wind­mill can mean fewer of them need to be built, re­duc­ing in­stal­la­tion and main­te­nance costs.

In in­creas­ing the size of its tur­bines from 541 feet to as much as 800 feet, U.S. Wind is re­duc­ing the num­ber of tur­bines from 63 to 32. The de­vel­oper says that with fewer tur­bines, it can build them far­ther from shore, ex­pect­ing the clos­est ones to be 17 miles or more from the beach. The pro­ject is sched­uled to start op­er­at­ing in 2023.

“This is yet an­other at­tempt to jeop­ar­dize the pro­ject in, I would say, a disin­gen­u­ous way,” said Salvo Vi­tale, gen­eral coun­sel for U.S. Wind, a sub­sidiary of Ital­ian com­pany Renexia S.p.A.

The Skip­jack farm, which has re­ceived less crit­i­cism from Ocean City but got­ten some at­ten­tion in Fen­wick Is­land, Delaware, plans to build tur­bines 860 feet tall and be­gin op­er­at­ing them in 2022. Though that is 220 feet higher than orig­i­nally planned, the de­vel­oper, a sub­sidiary of Dan­ish com­pany Ørsted, has not changed its plans to build about 15 wind­mills at least 20 miles from the coast, to the north of the U.S. Wind devel­op­ment.

“When you’re look­ing at them at the dis­tance you will be from shore, it’s pretty hard to tell the dif­fer­ence,” said Joy We­ber, a devel­op­ment man­ager for Ørsted.

In Ocean City, town lead­ers are skep­ti­cal. Mee­han said they sup­port wind en­ergy as long as it isn’t vis­i­ble from the shore, and would rather reg­u­la­tors shift the projects far­ther off­shore. Though U.S. Wind says its wind­mills will be at least 17 miles away from Ocean City beaches, the town is con­cerned fu­ture phases of its farm will be built closer — the state is al­low­ing it to build within a zone that comes as close as 13.8 miles from shore.

Mee­han said he sees thou­sands of peo­ple out on ocean­front bal­conies on sum­mer morn­ings, drink­ing cof­fee and watch­ing the sun rise. He thinks the sil­hou­ettes of wind tur­bines on the hori­zon would ruin that view.

“We’ve changed so many things in the world to­day,” he said. “To pre­serve some­thing like that for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, we feel, is im­por­tant.”

Res­i­dents and prop­erty own­ers fear that aside from driv­ing tourists to va­ca­tion else­where, vis­i­ble wind tur­bines could drive down real es­tate val­ues. Michael James, man­ag­ing part­ner of the 21-story Carousel Ho­tel at 118th Street and Coastal High­way, said he wor­ries the sight of tur­bines four times taller than that build­ing would ruin a view that peo­ple pay a pre­mium for.

“A lot of peo­ple work a long time to come to Ocean City and buy a condo,” he said. “It is a re­sort where view mat­ters.”

Off­shore wind is sup­posed to be a key piece of a grow­ing port­fo­lio of re­new­able en­ergy in Mary­land. A state law passed in 2013 set a goal that it would even­tu­ally con­trib­ute 2.5% of the state’s en­ergy sup­ply. It al­lowed com­pa­nies to col­lect money from res­i­den­tial and busi­ness en­ergy bills to help pay for the projects, cap­ping costs for res­i­den­tial cus­tomers to $1.50 a month.

This year, the Gen­eral Assem­bly in­creased the state’s po­ten­tial com­mit­ment to off­shore wind more than four­fold as part of leg­is­la­tion call­ing for half the state’s en­ergy to come from re­new­able sources by 2030. It added 88 more cents in po­ten­tial monthly costs for ratepay­ers.

Now, the prospect of new hur­dles for wind devel­op­ment off Mary­land’s shores comes as the in­dus­try looks to grow but faces some un­cer­tainty. In Vir­ginia, a Do­min­ion En­ergy wind farm is ex­pected to be­come the sec­ond off­shore wind to go on­line in U.S. wa­ters next year, and the com­pany last month an­nounced plans for the largest wind farm in the U.S. pipe­line, 27 miles off the coast of Vir­ginia Beach.

At the same time, wind com­pa­nies are watch­ing closely af­ter fed­eral reg­u­la­tors stalled re­view of tur­bines pro­posed off Martha’s Vine­yard, look­ing for signs of what could be ahead for projects in devel­op­ment in New Jersey, New York and Rhode Is­land.

Both Mary­land projects still must file con­struc­tion and op­er­a­tions plans with the fed­eral Bureau of Ocean En­ergy Man­age­ment for ap­proval, a process the com­pa­nies ex­pect to be­gin next year. An­drew Gohn, east­ern re­gion di­rec­tor at the Amer­i­can Wind En­ergy As­so­ci­a­tion, sug­gested that re­view is a more ap­pro­pri­ate venue for con­cerns about any im­pacts the wind farms could have.

But oth­ers dis­agree — in­clud­ing in the Ho­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion. Mary Beth Tung, di­rec­tor of the state en­ergy ad­min­is­tra­tion, wrote a let­ter last month urg­ing the Public Ser­vice Com­mis­sion to con­sider whether the in­tro­duc­tion of taller, more pow­er­ful wind tur­bines changed “the facts un­der­ly­ing the orig­i­nal [o]rder” al­low­ing the de­vel­op­ers to col­lect money from ratepay­ers.

Three days later, the com­mis­sion asked for public com­ments on the pro­ject — its first so­lic­i­ta­tion for such in­put on off­shore wind since 2017.

A spokesman for Ho­gan de­clined to com­ment be­yond Tung’s let­ter.

Sep­a­rately from any re­view of the U.S. Wind and Skip­jack projects, the com­mis­sion soon could be faced with de­ci­sions about new off­shore wind pro­pos­als.

It’s in the process of hir­ing a con­sul­tant to re­view pro­ject ap­pli­ca­tions, and un­der the state law passed this year, com­pa­nies can sub­mit pro­pos­als for a sec­ond round of off­shore wind devel­op­ment any­time af­ter Jan. 1.

Those projects could be as far as 80 miles from the coast — or as close as 10 miles.

DON EMMERT/GETTY-AFP 2016

This wind tur­bine near Block Is­land, R.I., is in the first U.S. off­shore pro­ject.

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