Clean Jobs Act Triples Offshore Wind Farm Capacity; Resort Officials Express Same Concerns

OCEAN CITY — A bill that could essentially triple the capacity of wind energy off the coast of Maryland passed this week, causing resort officials to redouble their efforts to get the word out about the potential impact of the vast turbine fields.

As the session expired this week, state lawmakers passed the Clean Jobs Act of 2019, language in which could allow for the expansion of offshore wind energy generated off the coast of Ocean City to 1,200 megawatts. Currently, the two projects plodding through the approval process would generate under 400 megawatts combined.

According to language in the bills, the Public Service Commission (PSC) shall provide additional application periods for consideration of offshore wind projects on a graduated scale through 2030. The intent of the legislation is to position Maryland to keep up with the growing offshore wind energy competition up and down the east coast. When state lawmakers approved the Clean Energy Act of 2013, paving the way for the two approved projects now on the table, the state was considered to be out in front of the burgeoning offshore wind energy market. In the years since, however, other states have approved projects, some of which are up and running and others that are further along in the approval pipeline.

Since the PSC in 2017 approved two offshore wind energy projects off the coast, town officials have been in a prolonged battle to have the two approved companies build their wind turbines as far as 26 nautical miles off the coast, or a distance believed to have the turbines not visible from the shoreline.

After considerable debate, one of the approved companies, US Wind, has acquiesced somewhat and agreed to place its turbines no closer than 17 miles from the resort’s coast, while a second project would site its turbines in a range of 17-21 miles off the resort coast, or at the western edge of the state’s designated Wind Energy Area (WEA).

However, in the roughly two years since the PSC approved the two Maryland projects, the technology of wind turbines has accelerated to the point they now could be considerably larger and taller than what was originally envisioned. With the legislation approved this week that could triple the capacity of the two projects off Maryland’s coast in a second phase, those larger turbines could become a reality in the future.

During Monday’s Tourism Commission meeting, resort officials renewed the debate about the legislation approved by the General Assembly and the potential impact of expanded offshore wind energy projects off the coast on sightlines from the beach and ultimately property values. From the beginning, resort officials have asserted vast wind energy farms with giant spinning turbines within site of the coast could impact tourism and, by extension, property values.

It was an assertion renewed this week at the tourism commission level. Commission member and Ocean City hotelier Michael James pointed out the turbines could be three times taller than the Carousel. He said many in the resort aren’t likely aware of the size and scale of the projects.

“We really need to do something to get the truth out about these things and what this will look like,” he said. “I just don’t think most people know how tall they are going to be and how noisy they are. People who own property in Ocean City don’t understand how their value is going to go down because of this and it’s not going to do down just one or two percent. I think we all agree we’re for clean energy, but not at the expense of property values. I just think we need to get the word out.”

Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director and CEO Melanie Pursel said the organization partnered last month on a public information meeting about the potential impacts of offshore drilling for oil and natural gas and a similar approach could be used for the wind farm issue.

“I agree we need to get the word out and get the public informed on this,” she said. “We need to keep a close eye on this.”

James said the legislation was likely passed by state lawmakers who only viewed the potential green energy benefits without concern for local impacts.

“Legislators in say Baltimore County or Montgomery County just see this strictly as green energy,” he said. “I’m not sure they really know the impact of this. I don’t know if they know what they’re voting for.”

Tourism commission member Stephanie Meehan said she believed most local residents are aware of the issues, but many of the thousands of non-resident property owners have not been following its closely. She said that is the sector at which a public awareness campaign should be directed.

“I think the people who live here are up to speed on this,” she said. “It’s the non-resident people that own property that haven’t been paying attention. Those are the people we really need to reach out to.”

Meanwhile, it has been quiet locally on the offshore wind issue while resort officials await the next step in the approval process and another opportunity to weigh in on the distance issue for the turbines. Again, while Ocean City officials do not oppose offshore wind conceptually, they have fiercely opposed siting the turbines closer than 26 miles off the coast, largely because of aesthetic issues and potential impacts on property values and tourism.

Throughout the debate, town officials have pointed out the size of the individual turbines approved years ago have continued to grow in height exponentially, adding to the angst over their potential visibility from the coast.

However, the wind energy companies that hold Maryland permits pushed for the passage of the Clean Jobs Act of 2019 to keep the state positioned out in front of what is becoming an increasingly competitive market up and down the east coast. When he testified before the House and Senate last month, US Wind Manager Salvo Vitale urged state lawmakers to support the sister bills that would essentially triple the capacity for offshore wind off Maryland’s coast. Vitale extolled economic virtues of expanding offshore wind in the resort along with its environmental benefits.

“This transformational legislation would serve to reassert Maryland’s leadership position in the fast-developing offshore wind energy sector underway in the United States, creating an additional 5,000-7,000 direct jobs, an additional $18 million to be deposited in the Offshore Wind Business Development Fund, approximately $5 billion in new capital expenditures and thousands of tons more of carbon emissions reduced or avoided altogether,” said Vitale. “With only 358 megawatts currently available for development here in our state and no further incentive to develop more, Maryland risks ceding its leadership position as other states along the eastern seaboard move aggressively to increase the proportion that offshore wind energy accounts for in their own state renewable energy goals.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.