Ocean City Evaluating Facilities For Alternative Energy Sources

OCEAN CITY – One week after considering a cost-saving proposal to take out every other light bulb on the Inlet parking lot and at other areas throughout town, Ocean City officials are taking a broader, long-term exploration into meeting the resort’s energy needs with alternative renewable sources.

Imagine the lights on the Inlet lot and the Boardwalk powered by an attractive, quiet windmill somewhere nearby or the massive town complex at 65th Street fueled by a bank of solar panels. Those are the types of out-of-the-box ideas town officials are currently exploring, and while there are obvious upfront expenses associated with bringing them to fruition sometime down the road, an exploration of the opportunities is at least on the table.

Actually, town staffers began looking into alternative energy opportunities before the Mayor and Council entertained the idea of turning off some of the lights in the downtown area last week as part of a broader wave of cost-saving measures. Armed with a $6,800 grant from the Maryland Energy Administration (MEA), City Engineer Terry McGean and other town staffers have already met with private sector companies and consultants to take a look at the possibilities of utilizing alternative energy sources such as wind and solar at town facilities.

“We got a grant from the MEA which we’re using to look at each city facility to see if there are opportunities for wind, solar or geothermal energy,” said McGean this week. “We’re bringing in consultants and evaluating each city facility to determine first if there is an opportunity, and secondly, how we could implement it and fund it.”

McGean said there has already been considerable interest in the private sector in helping the town explore alternative energy sources and the seeds have been planted for possible future partnerships.

“We’ve had a couple of companies come to us and say they’d like to try to do this or that,” he said. “We’re looking into the possibilities and we have to come up with a way to bring everybody to the table. We’ll bring in manufacturers of wind turbines and solar panels and listen to their ideas and develop a request for proposal (RFP) which we could take to the Mayor and Council further down the road.”

The idea of utilizing natural energy sources so readily available in a coastal town such as Ocean City is certainly not a new one. Already, there has been a considerable effort in the private sector with wind turbines and solar panels utilized at private residences and businesses. Just this week, Maryland announced a plan to meet a quarter of its energy needs at state facilities and college campuses with renewable energy such as wind and solar power.

Powering the lights on the Inlet lot and the Boardwalk with a wind turbine somewhere in the downtown area is just one practical use of wind power in the resort, for example. An attractive wind turbine located in the Inlet area could provide an efficient, practical energy source, and with some creative signage and promotion add another tourist attraction in the area. It could also add to the town’s reputation as a “green” community and even generate some support for the long-term proposal to develop an offshore wind farm off the coast.

“That’s not a far-fetched idea at all,” said McGean. “That is the kind of idea we’re looking into now.” 

Similar ideas have been floated for other town facilities in the resort, according to McGean. For example, the Northside Park facilities could be a good candidate for both wind and solar energy, while the town’s complex at 65th Street could benefit from solar panels. Another idea under consideration is utilizing available geothermal power at the Ocean City Airport, for example. However, from a practical standpoint, not all city facilities would be good candidates.

“City Hall, for example, would be a tough one,” said McGean. “There are a lot of taller buildings around it that could make wind turbines or solar panels there difficult.”

Of course, getting ideas from the planning stage to actual implementation could require a considerable financial commitment from the town at a time when it is considering practically every cost-saving measure, including removing light bulbs, but the long-term upside make exploring them at this time a worthwhile enterprise. McGean said there is state and federal grant money available for sustainable energy projects and there is always the possibility of a public-private sector partnership.

“There are creative ways to fund these things,” he said. “With solar, for example, there is a rooftop leasing program where a private company installs the solar panels and the local government buys back the energy at a lower cost. There are also fairly significant tax breaks for projects like this.”

Of course, a windmill at the Inlet or solar panels on top of the Public Safety building, for example, would not directly provide energy for the town facilities.

“That is kind of a misconception,” said McGean. “Generally, you’re not connecting directly into the power source for your building. Instead, the energy generated goes into the larger, regional power grid. When you’re using the power you generate, you’re bill goes down. When you aren’t, you are selling the excess back to the power company, so you generate some revenue in that way.”