(Aug. 28, 2020) Ocean City is 0 for 1 in its fight against offshore wind turbines, after the Maryland Public Service Commission announced last Thursday its approval of Ørsted’s Skipjack Offshore Wind Energy’s 12 MW wind turbine selection.
“We are disappointed by the opinion of the Public Service Commission, and somewhat surprised,” Mayor Rick Meehan said in a statement to Ocean City Today. “While we can support the Skipjack project, we believed our concerns with regard to the size and the distance from shore of these giant turbines was substantiated and well presented.”
“Ørsted is pleased that the Maryland Public Service Commission approved the project’s longstanding commitment to use the best commercially available turbine technology,” said Brady Walker, Ørsted’s Mid-Atlantic Market Manager. “The project will continue to engage with all stakeholders on creating a project that all Marylanders can be proud of.”
The drama began on June 4, 2019, when Skipjack notified the commission by letter that the company would switch its turbine selection from the Siemens 8 MW towers to the more than 700-foot General Electric (GE) Haliade-X 12 MW turbines.
The following June, the commission held hearings for the Skipjack project, during which Ocean City officials and the offshore wind company argued their respective cases to the commission.
The commission has stressed repeatedly that the hearings would only be in regard to the potential effects created by the change in turbine size, and nothing else.
At the center of Ocean City’s argument was that the taller turbines would damage the city’s coastline view, particularly the “iconic sunrise” Meehan had testified, which would damage the tourism industry by devaluing property.
The taller turbines would not only be more visible during the daytime, but also during the night, city officials contended, as the additional height would require the installation of U.S. Coast Guard marine navigation lighting systems.
To mitigate the visual pollution, Ocean City officials asked the commission to require Skipjack to push the turbines back at least 33 statute miles from shore, similar to the configuration of the South Fork Wind Farm currently in development near Long Island, New York.
Skipjack has said its closest turbine would be either 21.5 or 22.7 miles off shore, depending on whether it uses a 10-turbine or 12-turbine layout.
Using the 8 MW turbines, the closest turbine would have been 19.5 miles to shore.
This uncertainty in terms of project layout was also a major concern for Ocean City officials, who said this made it difficult to accurately gauge the project’s potential aesthetic effects.
Additionally, Ocean City officials argued that renderings presented by Skipjack were misleading and unreliable.
“Simulations that are based on photographs … show elements in the simulations to be lower in contrast than they are in reality,” Ocean City witness Robert Sullivan, an environmental scientist and visual impact and mitigation expert, said during the hearing.
He also criticized the lack of renderings based on certain time periods, and the use of people and objects.
Finally, resort officials expressed frustration with the lack of communication from Skipjack.
Meehan said during the hearing that aside from a meeting that Ocean City had requested on July 15, 2019, “We had no interaction with Skipjack or any conversation or any dialogue with them until the public hearing that was held in January of 2020.”
In fact, the January hearing was the first time city officials had seen renderings with the new proposed turbines, despite earlier requests.
If the commission did approve the turbines, Ocean City officials asked that the commission include additional conditions, such as limiting Skipjack to the 12 MW turbines, pushing the turbines 33-miles offshore, turbines be placed in the furthest portion of Skipjack’s lease area and for Skipjack to use an aircraft detection lighting system.
Ocean City’s arguments failed to impress the commission, and many of its requests were not granted.
In its statement, the commission said the taller wind turbines would reduce the project’s visibility, as fewer turbines would be placed further away from shore.
Furthermore, by using the 12 MW turbines, the project would encompass just a fraction of the visible horizon.
“… the 12 MW turbine layout will result in the project taking up 7 percent of the visible horizon, in contrast to the 8 MW turbine configuration, which was anticipated to comprise 18 percent of the visible horizon.,” the commission stated.
The commission also quoted Sullivan as a counterargument to the city’s claims.
“Ocean City’s visual expert, Mr. Sullivan, testified that ‘by itself the Skipjack Project would not cause significant visual impacts to Ocean City,’” the statement said.
The visual effect would only be significant cumulatively, or coupled with other offshore wind projects.
But even then, “’If Skipjack stuck with the current number of 12-megawatt turbines in the current configuration, I actually think the cumulative effects would be smaller. Because I believe the visual impacts of this project are not increased at all by moving to 12-megawatt turbines if Skipjack keeps them in the current configuration or improves it, which definitely could be done,’” Sullivan is quoted as saying.
As for the city’s multiple requests, the commission rejected the 33-miles offshore condition as impossible to accommodate.
“… the Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act of 2013 requires that offshore wind turbines be placed between 10 and 30 miles off the coast of the state,” the commission said. “If the project is located beyond those geographical constraints, it is not eligible for ORECs (offshore wind renewable energy credits) approved by the commission.”
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) also had issued Skipjack a specific lease area to which the project was confined.
The commission then reiterated its position that the hearing had been solely in regard to potential effects caused by the change in turbine size and nothing else.
Finally, the commission said it found Skipjack had followed conditions that required it to “use best commercially-reasonable efforts to minimize visual impacts,” as “Nowhere did the commission require that the project be invisible from the shore.”
As for pushing the project into outer portions of Skipjack’s lease area, the commission said the request would alter the project beyond its original application and beyond what the commission had approved, which meant it was outside of the scope of the hearing.
“Additionally, the request, if granted, would infringe upon the lease area Ørsted has purchased to potentially pursue other projects,” the commission said.
Skipjack will also have freedom to continue working on the project’s final turbine configuration.
“… though we are sympathetic to Ocean City’s complaint that it is difficult to fully evaluate a project that is changing … if the commission were to mandate a final layout now, it would deprive BOEM and participating stakeholders from that opportunity. There are also issues that are beyond the jurisdiction of the commission, such as shipping lanes and offshore environmental matters …” the commission said.
Yet, the commission did side with the city in terms of the lack of communication on Skipjack’s part, as well as the aircraft detection system.
Skipjack will be required to reengage with stakeholders, aka Ocean City, and provide a detailed status report to the commission every six months, much to the relief of city officials.
Additionally, it will require Skipjack to install a radar-enabled aircraft detection lighting system on the turbines, if and when such technology is available.
“We will continue to pursue our opposition to the location of this project through the federal permit process as we believe it is essential to all parties concerned that we do everything we can do to get this right,” Meehan said.