North OC Battery Storage System Could Hinge On Land Swap

North OC Battery Storage System Could Hinge On Land Swap
Delmarva Power plans to use its parcel to construct a battery energy storage system, pictured in the rendering above. Submitted Image

OCEAN CITY – After a marathon public hearing this week, resort planners agreed to forward a recommendation to the Mayor and Council allowing for Delmarva Power to develop a battery energy storage system on one of two north-end parcels.

It’s complicated, but in layman’s terms, a battery energy storage system, or BESS, would be a fallback energy source in the resort for Delmarva Power and Light (DPL) during times of peak electricity use on the barrier island. It is part of DPL’s efforts to improve and ensure reliability at peak times.

In 2019, the state of Maryland, through the Public Service Commission (PSC), initiated a pilot program known as the Maryland Energy Storage Pilot Program. The purpose of the pilot program is to explore the efficiency of deploying utility-scale energy storage throughout the state including Ocean City.

Complicating the issue further, DPL owns a lot at 100th Street suitable for the installation of a BESS, while Ocean City owns an adjacent lot of identical size and shape just to the south. For years, the Mayor and Council have been debating a land swap with DPL for the two parcels. The swap would allow the town to consolidate its other parcels in the area, while DPL would have a suitable site on which to install the state-mandated BESS.

During Tuesday’s meeting, DPL submitted applications for a conditional use to install a BESS on either of the parcels, depending on the outcome of the land swap. As a result, the planning commission held two separate public hearings contingent on the outcome of the land swap. Attorney Ryan Showalter, representing DPL, explained the situation and the need for the joint approvals.

“We need to construct a battery energy storage system,” he said. “Delmarva Power and Light owns one parcel, and the Town of Ocean City owns the adjacent parcel. There has been discussion for years about swapping the land. By doing so, it would preserve the flexibility for the Mayor and Council for a future project.”

There was no shortage of technical engineering details provided about the BESS and what it does and what it provides, but DPL’s Heather Roberts explained the need succinctly.

“During high peak times in the summer, the BESS will protect the grid,” she said. “It will help ensure reliability.”

At either location, the BESS would essentially by a rectangular building about 10 feet by 50 feet and around 12-feet above ground level. It would house panels of lithium batteries that could be used as a backup energy source during times of peak usage. It would be fenced in and screened with landscaping, and the colors of the structure and the surrounding fence would make it bleed into the landscape.

During the public comment period of the hearing, concerns were raised by residents and property owners in the immediate area.

Dr. Leonard Berger, who owns property nearby including the Clarion, which, he mentioned, is under contract for sale, questioned the health aspect of the BESS in the residential areas and wondered if it was just a first step in what could become a larger project.

“I would like to know if it’s going to create any electro-magnetic radiation,” he said. “Will there be transmission lines to follow?”

Deborah Wilson, property manager at the nearby Our Place at the Beach community, questioned if siting a BESS in a residential area would impact property values.

“One of our buildings will look directly at this,” she said. “I’m concerned about the impact on real estate. We’ve had two years of nice gains in property values.”

Carolyn Johnston of nearby Marigot Beach also voiced concern about the potential health issues and pointed to a survey of DPL’s substation at 138th Street as a result.

“I have concerns about safety and low-level radiation,” she said. “With the 138th Street survey, it was very low, but the survey was done in January. We have concerns about health. When our kids and grandkids come down, we want them to be in a healthy environment.”

Johnston also voiced concern about the impacts in the viewshed.

“As a person who enjoys sunrises and sunsets, it’s exquisite to watch sunsets over the bay in Ocean City,” she said. “Now, we’ll be watching them over this facility.”

Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville said having the BESS on one or the other properties could be the lesser of two evils. DPL has a decades-old permanent conditional use on the property it owns that would allow the company to construct a more impactful electric substation.

“DPL has a permanent conditional use on the property it owns,” he said. “If the land is swapped with the Mayor and Council, the conditional use would switch. It’s going to be one or the other. The permanent conditional use would extinguish. That could be a condition of approval.”

Bill Johnston of Marigot Beach voiced concern about the location of his church and other amenities in the area.

“I am concerned about our church—the Church of the Holy Spirit,” he said. “We can spit on this site near our church. It is also near the library. There are a lot of kids around and I have health concerns.”

Showalter then attempted to systematically allay the residents’ concerns. He first addressed concerns about what could go there in the future, pointing out DPL has no plans to build a substation in that area.

“We’re only going to build one BESS,” he said. “It’s certainly up to the Mayor and Council to choose what parcel, but only one will be utilized if the Mayor and Council agree to the land swap.”

As far as the viewshed, Showalter said the impact should be minimal.

“We understand this is a concern with the sunset,” he said. “We will screen it with any colors the city desires. From an elevated position, it will look like a low-level rectangular structure that can be painted any color. It will blend into the landscape.”

Public Works Director Hal Adkins said the siting of the proposed BESS would have less impact on the bayside viewshed than existing structures in the area.

“It would be behind the library to the west,” he said. “The view of the sunset would not be obstructed by this facility, but rather the top of the library.”

Back to Dr. Berger, he continued to reiterate his concerns.

“There needs to be another location, not in this place,” he said. “It’s in a residential area with a library and three churches. This doesn’t belong there. They do belong someplace. It’s a great idea, but this is in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Planning Commission Chair Pam Buckley questioned why the BESS needed to be sited in Ocean City in the first place.

“We have been built-out for years, and to the west of us they are building left and right,” she said. “Why do we need this on a barrier island? Is this going into the grid to somewhere else?”

Buckley pointed out there are already four substations on the island.

“I can’t wrap my head around why we need more,” she said. “I’m hearing the only reason you’re doing this is because the state is making you. I’m not sure you’ve illustrated a need.”

Planning Commissioner Joe Wilson said a major benefit in approving one or both of the conditional use requests for the BESS could be eliminating the permanent conditional use that could allow a major substation in the future on the DPL property.

“I think if we have an opportunity to extinguish a permanent conditional use, we should do it,” he said. “If the town participates in the land swap, the permanent conditional use could be extinguished.”

Planning Commissioner Lauren Taylor agreed.

“Clearly, it’s desirable to put it on that piece of property,” she said. “I do have a problem with the fencing. You have to have power in that area. This is one way to get it without another substation.”

Planning Commissioner Palmer Gillis said the south site was advantageous for the proposed BESS if that would eliminate a future substation on the lot.

“I think this is best for the neighborhood to have it on that south lot,” he said. “It would eliminate any need for a substation in that area. In terms of visibility, it’s just a box and it will be painted to fit into the landscape. This might be the lesser of two evils. I can’t even fathom a substation on the property they are talking about, but we have to provide electricity for Ocean City.”

It appeared the planners agreed siting the BESS on the south parcel currently owned by the town was advantageous, if the land swap is approved by the Mayor and Council. However, the trick was how to accomplish it in the form of a motion. There was a second public hearing on the parcel owned by DPL, but no real testimony was taken because it would have been redundant with the first hearing.

The Planning Commission first passed a motion to send a favorable recommendation approving the conditional use for the BESS on the town-owned site contingent on the land swap with DPL. After a brief second hearing, the planners approved a conditional use for a BESS on the current DPL parcel to the north if the land swap with the town is somehow not consummated.

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.