ASSATEAGUE — If and when offshore wind energy is developed off the coast of Ocean City, the transmission line connecting the turbines to the distribution network on land will have to come ashore somewhere, but a local conservation group last week voiced concern about a proposal to run the connection across or under Assateague Island to points west.
In each of the last three General Assembly session, Governor Martin O’Malley has pushed legislation that would open the door to the development of a wind farm including anywhere from 40 to 100 turbines off the coast of Ocean City, and in each year, state lawmakers have balked at the proposal for a variety of reasons. However, proceeding on a parallel course has been an effort to develop a network of underwater transmission lines just off the coast in preparation for a future connection from offshore wind turbines to the mainland.
Called the Atlantic Wind Connection (AWC), the network of underwater transmission lines would provide a superhighway of sorts for moving energy harnessed by offshore wind farms to millions of electric service customers throughout the mid-Atlantic region. Spearheaded by Internet giant Google, the investment group in May gained a significant approval from the U.S. Department of the Interior to move forward with the creation of the AWC.
After a year of intensive internal and public review, the Department of the Interior decision allows the AWC project to move forward in the permitting process. In short, the network for transmitting energy harnessed from the mythical wind farms off the coast of Maryland and Delaware could be in place before a single turbine is ever erected.
However, one major obstacle remaining is just where the transmission line should come ashore to connect with the vast electric service grid on the mainland. One proposal by AWC officials has the transmission line coming across or under Assateague before heading west to a connection further inland at Berlin, for example.
However, the Maryland Coastal Bays Program (MCBP) is voicing concerns about the proposal, citing the sensitive nature of the barrier island and the vast areas behind it. Last week, MCBP Executive Director Dave Wilson sent a letter to AWC officials expressing the agency’s concerns over the proposal.
“It has come to our attention that Atlantic Wind Connection is proposing a transmission line across Assateague Island and then west to Berlin,” the letter reads. “This letter is to convey the Maryland Coastal Bays Program’s concerns for such a plan.”
In the letter, Wilson explains the massive effort that has been undertaken to protect and conserve Assateague and the southern coastal bays watersheds south of Route 50.
“Millions of dollars have been spent by the state of Maryland and the federal government to protect on the last remaining jewels in the mid-Atlantic region,” the letter reads. “Thousands of man-hours have been expended by many conservation organizations during the last several decades to protect the pristine coastal bays and the abundant biodiversity that exists along the Sinepuxent, Newport and Chincoteague bays.”
The letter explains the migrating flight paths of thousands of birds and waterfowl at over Assateague have been well documented and include many rare, threatened and endangered species. A recent botanical inventory in the Newport Bay watershed shows similar rare species along with rare reptiles. To that end, the MCBP is seeking some assurances the proposed transmission line will not impact ecologically sensitive areas and all alternatives will be explored before considering Assateague.
“In our conversation on July 19, you noted that the cable would be underground and run only along major roads and highways,” the letter reads. “We hope you will work with us to continue to make this the case to avoid above-ground intrusion of forests and wetlands south of U.S. 50.”
Through zoning, Worcester County has worked hard to keep the bays and natural lands south of Route 50 in their pristine condition. In 2008, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) included the sensitive region in its Targeted Ecological Areas. In 2009, the MCBP’s policy committee created the Newport-Chincoteague Land Conservation Area. Then, in 2010, the National Audubon Society recognized the southern bays as an Important Bird Area.
“If offshore wind is to work, then all other potential routes, especially north of U.S. 50, should be given the highest priority to avoid what will otherwise be a very contentious issue,” the letter reads.
The high-voltage transmission system is proposed to be constructed roughly 12-15 miles off the mid-Atlantic coast including Ocean City, from Virginia, Maryland and Delaware to New Jersey and New York. It will eventually span over 300 miles and be constructed over a period of 10 years. With approval from the Department of the Interior in May, the project could get underway as soon as 2014.