Maryland PSC Finds Public Hearing Merited On Larger Wind Turbines

Maryland PSC Finds Public Hearing Merited On Larger Wind Turbines
A visual simulation of 12 MW wind turbines is pictured. Image provided by Skipjack Wind Farm

OCEAN CITY — The Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) last week ordered a public hearing on the ever-increasing size of the proposed turbines for two offshore wind energy projects offshore, but the scope of the hearing will be limited and results are not likely to derail the projects.

In 2017, the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) approved two offshore wind energy projects off the coast of Ocean City. Technically, the PSC awarded Offshore Renewable Energy Credits (ORECs) to the two companies seeking to develop wind farms off the coast of the resort including the US Wind project and the Skipjack project. The awarding of ORECs was a necessary first step in what has become a lengthy approval process.

However, with advancements in technology, the height of the proposed turbines has increased exponentially since the original PSC approval in 2017, prompting Ocean City officials and the Maryland Energy Administration (MEA) to request a re-opening of the original approval proceedings. For example, Orsted’s Skipjack project has now committed to using 12-megawatt wind turbines described as the “world’s largest offshore wind turbine.”

For its part, US Wind has not finalized a decision on the turbines proposed for its project, although the company has stated publicly and in written correspondence to the PSC it is considering turbines considerably larger than the four-megawatt units first proposed including, potentially, the same 12-megawatt turbines chosen by the Skipjack project. However, US Wind has also said going with the larger model would allow the company to reduce the number of turbines by half from 64 to 32, which, in turn, would give the company more leeway in the distance the turbines would be constructed from the shoreline.

Last week, the PSC agreed with Ocean City and the MEA, releasing an order opining the proposed dramatic changes in the turbine models and its potential impact on the viewshed off the coast of the resort warranted a public hearing. That hearing has been set for Jan. 18 at a location on the Eastern Shore not yet determined.

However, while Ocean City officials applauded the ruling establishing a public hearing, the PSC cautioned the scope of the hearing would be limited to the size of the proposed wind turbines and not the commission’s original approvals for the two projects.

From the beginning, Ocean City has not opposed clean and renewable offshore wind energy projects, but has continually voiced concern about the distance of the proposed turbines from the resort coast and the potential impact on the viewshed, tourism and even property values. When the size of the proposed turbines continued to grow exponentially with advances in technology, resort officials urged the PSC to reopen the two approvals and hold a public hearing, a request that was granted in part and denied in part last week.

“We want to thank the Public Service Commission for granting our request for a public hearing on the increased size of Maryland’s offshore wind projects,” said Mayor Rick Meehan in a statement after the PSC order was announced last week. “We have always had concerns regarding the visual impact of the wind turbines even at the original size approved by the PSC. However, when the developers released plans to unilaterally double the size of these massive turbines without any public input of approvals, it was clearly time for the commission to step in.”

Meehan said the town and its citizens stood ready to make their case at the January hearing somewhere on the shore.

“We want to thank the Public Service Commission for the opportunity to present our concerns and the concerns of our citizens, visitors and property owners regarding the impact of these giant structures on our town,” he said. “As we have stated from the beginning, we support clean energy initiatives, but not at the cost of destroying the pristine viewshed off of our beach forever. We only get one chance to get this right and this is our chance.”

It’s important to note the PSC order does recognize the increased size of the proposed turbines for both projects warranted a new public hearing next month. It’s also important to note the original approvals for the two ORECs was based on the “best technology available.”

“The commission finds that the proposed changes in turbine models and size by US Wind and Skipjack constitute material changes to both companies’ qualified offshore wind projects,” the PSC order reads. “Accordingly, the commission grants Ocean City’s request for a hearing to consider the impacts that may result from the change in turbine models announced by US Wind and Skipjack since their original applications were filed on November 30, 2016.”

The PSC order essentially acknowledges the ever-changing size of the proposed turbine could further impact the resort’s viewshed.

“The impact the turbines would have on the viewshed was a significant focus of the proceeding in case number 9431 and the commission determined that its approval of the projects was contingent on the applicants using the ‘best commercially reasonable efforts to minimize the daytime and nighttime viewshed impacts of their respective projects’,” the order reads. “The final turbines selected by US Wind and Skipjack will significantly increase the turbines’ rotor diameter, blade length, swept area, hub height and tip height.”

However, while Ocean City was celebrating the order last week, the PSC cautioned the ensuing public hearing in January will be limited in scope to issues germane to turbine size and the commission would not revisit the original OREC approvals for the two projects.

“This inquiry is limited to potential impacts related to a change in turbine size,” the order reads. “The commission will not consider issues extraneous to that topic, including whether to grant the ORECs. The commission does not find it necessary or appropriate to reopen case number 9431 or reconsider order number 88192. Accordingly, Ocean City’s request to reopen case number 9431 or reconsider order number 88192 is denied.”

Meanwhile, Orsted, the parent company for the Skipjack project, said it was ready to defend the growing size of its proposed turbines and celebrated the element of the PSC order denying the town’s request to reopen the original approvals.

“We are pleased that the Public Service Commission has rejected requests to reopen its proceedings related to the Skipjack wind farm,” said Orsted’s Joy Weber this week. “Orsted stands ready to participate in the PSC’s limited inquiry on its plan to use the best commercially-available turbine technology for Skipjack, a project that will bring millions of dollars in economic impact to Maryland and Delaware and result in the creation of thousands of local jobs.”

Skipjack’s project would include the first line of turbines set at a distance of just under 20 miles off the coast and that project is sited more to the north of Ocean City. The Skipjack project now proposes 12-megawatt turbines measuring 850 feet tall called the “largest offshore wind turbine in the world.” By way of comparison, the Century I condominium building, the tallest building in Ocean City, measures 241 feet in height. The iconic Washington Monument is 555 feet tall, by way of further comparison.

The US Wind project includes a first line of turbines at around 17 miles from the shore and that project is situated more directly in front of Ocean City. Again, for its part, US Wind has not reached a final decision on the height of the proposed turbines for its project, although the company has acknowledged the turbines will likely be considerable taller than what was first proposed including the potential 12-megawatt turbines being used for Orsted’s Skipjack project.

“Although US Wind has not reached a final decision regarding turbine model selection, US Wind hereby notifies the commission that the four-megawatt turbine and other turbine units that were being evaluated in 2016 are no longer commercially available,” the company’s letter to the commission reads. “US Wind is now evaluating a variety of units with higher eight-, 10- and 12-megawatt ratings. US Wind will notify the commission of its final turbine selection decision as soon as it is made.”

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.