OCEAN CITY — With the arrival of a massive meteorological tower off the resort coast signaling the next significant step in the development of offshore wind farms, Ocean City officials this week, as promised, fired off a letter to the governor reiterating the town’s position on the distance of the turbines from the shore.
US Wind, one of two companies to gain approval to develop offshore wind energy farms off the coast of Ocean City, last week transported a meteorological tower, or met tower, off the coast of the resort. The met tower, which measures 328 feet in height, will be installed when offshore conditions improve, signaling the next significant step in the process. The tower, which will be installed a little over 14 miles off the coast, will be used to collect wind resource data within the Maryland lease area in advance of the future installation of as many as 32 massive offshore wind turbines.
The most recent letter of opposition, which was sent to the governor last Friday, attempts to hammer home the city’s oft-stated position.
“We would like to make it clear that the Mayor and Council support the concept of clean energy including offshore wind, provided it is done in a responsible manner,” the letter reads. “The Mayor and Council’s support for offshore wind is contingent on the projects not being visible from the Ocean City shoreline. Specifically, it is critical that the top of the turbine tower should not be visible from the highest residential unit in Ocean City.”
The letter points out when offshore wind was first brought to the town’s attention in 2012, resort officials agreed to allow them to be 13 miles or more from the shore. At that time, the proposed offshore wind turbines were two megawatt towers roughly 200 feet in height, which would have been virtually invisible from shore. However, in the years since, the technology has improved and the turbines have grown exponentially.
“Now, we understand that the developers are proposing to install 12 megawatt towers approaching 500 feet in height,” the letter reads. “In order for a structure that large to be invisible from Ocean City, they would need to be located at least 33 miles from our coast. The visual impact and the associated negative affect on tourism, property values and the environment of these giant structures, now more than twice the height of the tallest high-rise in Ocean City and allowed within 10 miles of our shore cannot be understated. Yet to this date, not a single public hearing has been conducted in Ocean City corporate limits by any regulatory agency to listen to the concerns of our citizens regarding these huge towers.”
According to the letter, recent changes in state law have resulted in even less limitations on the size and location of offshore wind turbines.
“Despite numerous requests by the Mayor and Council to the Maryland Public Service Commission and the General Assembly asking for some reasonable restrictions on these projects, we have received nothing but vague assurances to ‘minimize visual impact,’ yet the structures get larger and larger without any meaningful review by the federal or state government,” the letter reads. “The recent Clean Energy Jobs Act subsidized additional turbines without placing any limits on size or requiring that they be located any further than 10 miles offshore.”
The letter goes on to point out the commercial fishing industry, the maritime transportation industry, the Coast Guard and the Department of Defense have all expressed opposition to offshore wind turbines. The letter asserts the spinning blades can create false radar images which can be a hazard to marine traffic, hinder Coast Guard search and rescue efforts and block national defense radar installations from detecting hostile aircraft and other objects. The letter specifically addresses some of the issues raised by the commercial fishing industry locally and up and down the coast.
“The tight spacing of the structures will make the windfarm areas inaccessible to many local commercial fishing vessels that use gear that can be snagged and fouled by tower foundations,” the letter reads.
When reached this week, US Wind Manager Salvo Vitale said the town’s most recent letter to the governor included several mischaracterizations and, in his opinion, revealed Ocean City officials haven’t shown any willingness to work with the company.
“Ocean City has asked for 26 miles and now 33 miles, but the truth is the approved Wind Energy Area outlined by the Public Service Commission only extends out 24 miles,” he said. “We’ve agreed to do the best we can within the designated wind energy area, but the town has shown no real interest in sitting down and finding a common solution. There doesn’t appear to be a real will to work together.”
In terms of the size of the turbines, Vitale said the PSC approval included a provision that allowed the developer to utilize the best available technology when it came time to actually build the wind farm. He acknowledged the best available technology at the time of the PSC approval for the capacity of the wind turbines was two megawatts and that has since changed through the long approval and development process.
However, he dismissed the letter’s assertion that US Wind is now considering 12 megawatt turbines. Instead, Vitale said the turbines changed from four megawatts to the eight megawatts now under consideration.
“That does change the height of the turbines, but only by 17%,” he said. “That changes from a 165-meter turbine at four megawatts, to a 196-meter turbine at eight megawatts. The trade-off is we’ll be able to reduce the number of turbines by 50%. So instead of 64 wind turbines, we’re now proposing 32.”
Nonetheless, despite an increase in height of 17% with the eight-megawatt turbines compared to the four-megawatt turbines, the structures would still be fairly ominous offshore. For example, in a conversion from meters to feet, the four-megawatt turbine at 165 meters would be 541 feet tall, while the larger eight-megawatt turbine at 196 meters would by 643 feet tall. By way of comparison, the Washington Monument is 555 tall.
US Wind spokesman Greg Tucker reiterated even with the increased height, they would not be visible from shore even at the 17-mile distance currently on the table.
“Saying the turbines would be visible from shore at 17 miles is a ridiculous assertion,” he said. “There would be no impact on views, tourism or property values.”
Vitale dismissed the notion US Wind has been less than transparent through the process and that no public meetings or hearings have been held in the resort area, pointing to a presentation in Ocean Pines earlier this summer.
“We’ve been very public every step of the way in this process,” he said. “The notion we’ve been anything less than transparent is simply not true.”
Vitale pointed out US Wind has followed every regulation spelled out in the PSC approval to the letter and even compromised with moving the closest turbines to 17 miles offshore. He said the town’s most recent letter, like those that have come before it, signals an unwillingness on the part of Ocean City to work with US Wind.
“We’ve offered all along to meet at the table and find solutions,” he said. “The reality is, there is no real interest on their part in finding a solution.”