ANNAPOLIS — The battle over the proposed distance of offshore wind energy turbines from the Ocean City shoreline moved to the General Assembly this week with a hearing before a Senate committee that would require the distance to be at least 26 nautical miles.
The Town of Ocean City has contended the first line of turbines needs to be at least 26 miles from shore to ensure they are not visible from the resort coast. The project developers have made some concessions along with way, including US Wind’s olive branch of sorts to move the turbines 17 miles from the beach last year, but the battle continues over the proposed distance and the ever-changing height and scale of the turbines.
A bill has been introduced in the General Assembly on the Senate side sponsored by Senator Steve Hershey that would set the minimum distance for the first line of turbines at 26 nautical miles. The bill has been cross-filed in the House by eight Delegates, including Lower Shore Delegates Mary Beth Carozza and Charles Otto.
On Tuesday, Senate Bill 1058 had its first hearing in front of the Senate Finance Committee and the spirited debate, which has included a series of strongly-worded letters fired back and forth between the project developers and the town of Ocean City in recent weeks, began anew.
“This is a very simple bill but it has a number of effects on it,” Hershey told the committee on Tuesday. “All it does is require that offshore wind projects must be no closer that 26 nautical miles off the coast of Ocean City. It’s a very specific distance that we have determined through some studies that would make offshore wind mills not visible from Ocean City.”
Mayor Rick Meehan testified in support of the legislation.
“I want to make something very clear,” he said. “The town of Ocean City is not in opposition to offshore wind farms. We also support the jobs that this industry will create. We support the union’s efforts to create jobs as the result of this industry. We support the economic benefit to our neighbors to the west in Salisbury and West Ocean City. We support all of these things, but not at the detriment to the Town of Ocean City. This bill is critical to our future that wind turbines be located no closer than the 12.9 miles to 17 miles that are being proposed by US Wind.”
Meehan said the bill represented an opportunity to set the minimum distance of the turbines from the Ocean City coast at a point they would not be visible from shore.
“It’s our duty as elected officials representing the citizens, the visitors, the non-resident property owners-all 26,000 of them- and our local property owners to protect the beauty and pristine views in Ocean City. That’s what you’ll see forever. That’s what we’re trying to address.”
City Engineer Terry McGean said when a different project was proposed in 2010, the turbines had a capacity of three megawatts with 200-foot-tall turbines which would not be visible from the Ocean City shoreline. However, the Wind Energy Act of 2013 approved by the General Assembly did set distance parameters at 10-30 miles, but included no restrictions on the height of the turbines. McGean said while the lease areas are still within that 10-30-mile range prescribed in the bill, the proposed turbines have continued to grow.
“Since then, the height of the turbines has increased dramatically,” he said. “Technology has changed so rapidly that a year ago, US Wind received approval for 4Mw turbines with the possibility of going to 6Mw. We’re not talking about 8Mw turbines. In the last year, it has doubled.”
McGean said the 8Mw turbines have a height of 370 feet with a blade diameter of over 300 feet.
“To put that in perspective, a cruise ship is about 150 feet tall,” he said. “The tallest building in Ocean City is 250 feet tall. The towers are now almost twice the size of what the Mayor and Council envisioned in 2013.”
Ocean City hotelier Michael James, president and CEO of Hospitality Partners, LLC, also testified on behalf of the proposed legislation to set the distance at 26 miles.
“Visible turbines will be devastating to the resident and non-resident property owners in Ocean City with adverse and severe consequences,” he said. “The two most important factors for Ocean City property values are location and view. Wind turbines off the coast of Ocean City will reduce the demand for both rentals and sales of real estate and reduce the pleasure for those who love the ocean. This will be devastating for property owners, both resident and non-resident. Wind turbines off the coast of Ocean City are the greatest threat I’ve seen in my 38 years as a tourism and real estate professional.”
Finance Committee member Senator Jim Rosapepe (D-21) viewed the renderings of the proposed turbines off the Ocean City coast and questioned on which data the town officials had formed their opinion about the 26-mile distance.
“It may well be my eyesight, but I can barely see these turbines in these renderings,” he said. “You express great concern this will badly impact your business. My understanding is there are coastal resort towns elsewhere in the world that have offshore wind turbines. What data do you have of the economic effects of people barely being able to see these way offshore like this?
James explained a North Carolina State University study projected 40 percent of those surveyed would have their decision to visit a resort area impacted by views of wind turbines offshore.
“The North Carolina State study said 40 percent would have their decision to rent or buy impacted,” he said. “I would say to any industry who would want to adversely affect 40 percent of your customers, or even 30 or 20 percent?”
When it was their opportunity to testify, the offshore wind developers said moving the turbines to at least 26 miles offshore represented a deal-killer. Deepwater Wind CEO Jim Grybowski outlined all of the time, effort and money that had been invested in the projects, which will ultimately create hundreds of jobs and produce renewable, clean energy.
“We’re spending millions and millions of dollars and we’re passionate about doing that,” he said. “We will not be passionate if this bill passes. Let me be very clear, this bill will kill our project for sure. There is no way around it. Frankly, if you pass this bill, you might as well repeal the offshore wind legislation because the offshore wind industry will never come back. When you try to change the rules midway through the game, it’s a horrible precedent.”
Grybowski said his company was cognizant of Ocean City’s concerns and remained open to working with the city on the proposed distances of the turbines.
“We understand the emotional reaction from folks in Ocean City and very much want to work with that community,” he said. “We think there will be a project people in Ocean City can be proud of. We look forward to continuing that conversation, but this is not the place we hoped that would start.”
US Wind Project Development Director Paul Rich testified before the Senate committee and agreed the bill’s passage would effectively kill his company’s project.
“This bill would eviscerate all that we have done and all that we have created,” he said. “We have complied with everything we have been required to do and everything that we are eagerly moving forward with complies with the legislation this committee approved. It embraces the vision of all that you so boldly created back in 2013.”
The Senate Finance Committee hearing ended without a vote taken. The House Economic Matters Committee was scheduled to hold a hearing on companion House Bill 1135 on Thursday with the same players expected to testify on both sides.