OCEAN CITY — The Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) last week issued an order approving Ørsted’s use of the 12-megawatt turbines for its Skipjack offshore wind project despite Ocean City’s concerns on the visual impact off the resort coast.
In the order, the PSC also admonished the parent company Ørsted for not reaching out to stakeholders, including Ocean City, on the change in turbine height, however. Skipjack’s original proposal included the use of eight-megawatt turbines, but last year Ørsted announced it was going with the GE Haliade-X 12-megawatt turbines deemed the largest commercially-available wind turbines in the world.
In June, the PSC held an evidentiary hearing on the proposed change in wind turbine size for Ørsted’s Skipjack project off the coast of Ocean City. The evidentiary hearing was called when Skipjack announced its intention to switch from the previously proposed eight-megawatt turbines to the much larger 12-megawatt turbine, now believed to be the largest commercial wind turbine available.
When Skipjack moved to the 12-megawatt turbine, the town of Ocean City, which, from the beginning has not objected to the project, but only wanted the turbines to be sited at a distance where they would not be visible from the shore, urged the PSC to hold an evidentiary hearing on the proposed turbine change. After a well-attended public hearing in Ocean City in January, the PSC agreed to hold the evidentiary hearing and it took place in early June.
Last Friday, the PSC issued an order allowing the 12-megawatt turbines for the Skipjack project. Essentially, the PSC reasoned the change in size allowed the Skipjack project to reduce the number of turbines needed for the 120-megawatt offshore wind energy project, thus reducing the impacts on the viewshed off the coast of Ocean City and potentially moving the turbines farther off the resort coast.
“The commission finds that Skipjack’s selection of the Haliade-X 12-megawatt turbine is consistent with the Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act and the public interest,” the order reads. “After an evidentiary proceeding and a public hearing, the commission also finds that no further action is necessary regarding Skipjack’s turbine selection.”
By way of background, in 2017 the PSC approved two offshore wind energy projects roughly off the coast of Ocean City, or technically awarded Offshore Renewable Energy Credits (ORECs) to the two companies seeking to develop wind farms off the coast including the US Wind project and the Skipjack project.
However, with the advancements in technology, the height of the proposed turbines has increased exponentially since the original PSC approvals, prompting a request to reopen the original approval proceedings. For example, Ørsted’s Skipjack project is now committed to using 12-megawatt turbines described as the “world’s largest offshore wind turbine.”
In the order released last Friday, the PSC said it did not take the decision to approve the 12-megawatt turbines lightly and acknowledged Ocean City’s concerns about the impact on the resort’s viewshed both during the day and at night.
“The gravamen of Ocean City’s objection to the project, whether the eight-megawatt or 12-megawatt turbine is used, is that the turbines will be visible from the shore and may negatively impact tourism,” the order reads. “The commission takes Ocean City’s concerns seriously. Ocean City is an iconic coastal town that attracts over eight million tourists per year and there is no dispute that the 12-megawatt turbine is larger than the eight-megawatt turbine it replaces. Nevertheless, there are a number of viewshed benefits of using the larger turbine that lower the visual impact from the shore.”
While the decision announced last week did not go Ocean City’s way, the PSC did admonish the Skipjack project for not appropriately including the town and other stakeholders in the process, calling the company’s efforts at outreach “meager.”
“Regarding outreach to stakeholders, the commission finds Skipjack’s efforts were deficient,” the order reads. “The order clearly imposes upon Skipjack the duty to work with stakeholders, including state and local officials, to discuss placement of the turbines in a manner that minimizes visual impacts.”
The PSC order also points out Ocean City has attempted to work with the project developer and has offered alternative configurations to minimize the visual impact, but the town’s other options apparently fell on deaf ears.
“Ocean City raised the possibility of alternative configurations to Skipjack’s two-row proposal, such as a three-row configuration or a layout with the turbines arranged parallel to the shore,” the order reads. “Ocean City demonstrated that such an alternative could allow the project to be shifted east by up to an additional two miles, further reducing its visibility. However, Skipjack failed to consider these alternatives and, prior to the hearing, it never discussed them with Ocean City.”
The PSC order suggests Skipjack’s apparent lack of communication with Ocean City through the process was unfairly rooted in the town’s opposition to the project from the beginning.
“Skipjack’s defense, that Ocean City presented consistent opposition to the project, is unavailing,” the order reads. “Skipjack’s duty to reach out to stakeholders was not contingent on the stakeholders’ enthusiasm for the project. Ocean City is an important stakeholder whose economy is vital to the state.”
The PSC also pointed to Ocean City’s support for a failed attempt at legislation mandating the project’s turbines be sited at least 26 miles off the coast. As a result, the PSC ordered Skipjack to improve its outreach with stakeholders including Ocean City.
“Nor should Ocean City be punished for its lawful advocacy of a bill that would have required offshore wind turbines to be located at least 26 miles from shore,” the order reads. “Skipjack is therefore ordered to re-engage with stakeholders and to provide a status report to the commission every six months on the ongoing engagement until ordered to discontinue.”
In a statement issued shortly after the PSC order was released, Ørsted announced it was pleased with the decision to allow the larger 12-megawatt turbines and promised to do better with outreach to the stakeholders.
“Orsted is pleased that the Maryland Public Service Commission approved the project’s longstanding commitment to use the best commercially-available turbine technology,” said Ørsted Mid-Atlantic Market Manager Brady Walker. “The project will continue to engage with all stakeholders on creating a project that all Marylanders can be proud of. We look forward to continuing our work in delivering clean and reliable energy to over 35,000 homes in the Delmarva region.”