Harris’ move on offshore wind ‘dagger’ to efforts

A push by Congressman Andy Harris to force developers to move wind power turbines far enough east so they couldn’t be seen from the Ocean City beach — up to 26 miles offshore — could cause the project to the be scrapped, but an resort councilman insists it’s viable.

Last week, Harris proposed attaching an amendment to the Department of the Interior appropriations bill to move the turbines from 17 miles, as is the current plan the company US Wind is working on, to 27 miles out into the ocean. The amendment was approved by the U.S. Appropriations Committee, prompting Harris to write on his Website that it would only delay the project, not cancel it.

But Paul Rich, US Wind project manager, disagreed.

“We couldn’t go 26 miles out if we wanted to. We bid on a lease area and contracted with the federal government. We can’t go any farther east because of Coast Guard constraints, as well. There’s large amount of shipping traffic in the ocean that goes from the southern U.S. as well as the Caribbean that comes up into the Delaware River. They have a navigational channel they have to follow to go into and out of the Delaware River, so that precludes us from moving the turbines,” Rich said this week.

The $2.5 billion project would result in the largest offshore wind farm in the United States, with the installation of 125 turbines stretching from the Inlet north to the Delaware border. They would be about one and one-quarter miles apart in 20 to 30 meters of water over 80,000 acres off Ocean City.

Energy would be collected at a substation and transmitted to shore through underwater cables.

The project is expected to come online in three years and produce enough power for more than 500,000 Maryland homes.

Ocean City Councilman Tony DeLuca told the Salisbury Independent that he, Mayor Rick Meehan and other City Council members like the idea of a wind farm but have “heard from a lot of people who just don’t want to see the turbines from the beach.”

“They want them here but they just don’t want them visible. We went to engineers and they determined with the curvature of the earth, at 26 miles they are invisible. People we have heard from don’t want to see them at all. We have had a lot of e-mails. I think he can reduce the size of the turbines, the height, if they have to be closer in, and we can get same result from them,” DeLuca said.

Rich countered his company can only use equipment that’s on the market, and heights are standard.

“They don’t custom make the equipment. For a turbine to generate a certain amount of power it has to have blades that are a certain length. In this case to generate the power we need, the blades are around 245 feet in length, so right now the turbine is set at 325 feet above the water line. That’s what you see. The blades, you don’t see them from 17 miles away. You are looking at something 325 feet above the water. We can’t move it any farther away than it already is,” Rich said.

Ocean City officials have been involved in conversations about wind power for the past seven years, Rich said.

“The federal government engaged a stakeholder involvement process to see where they could establish and how the city was involved. City Engineer Terry McGean and others were there from the first meeting in 2010,” Rich said.

“We’ve made a lot of progress. We have a lease block that is a federally designated lease block that was in part designed by Ocean City. The city participated in discussions and insisted it be 10 miles off shore, then 17 miles off shore.  We can’t move it more and still stay within the wind energy area,” he said.

Rich met with Harris’ field director in Salisbury and his legislative director less than a month ago and no mention was made of Republican Harris proposing the amendment, a move Bill Chambers, President and CEO of the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce called a “dagger.”

“While the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Salisbury Committee work with the Maryland Energy Administration on grant opportunities for Lower Shore businesses to take advantage of Maryland’s offshore wind industry, this latest dagger could derail years of hard work by a number of interests seeking to grow Maryland’s economy and specifically, the Eastern Shore economy,” Chambers told the Salisbury Independent.

“Delay or elimination of offshore wind initiatives damages emerging minority owned businesses looking to participate in the global offshore wind industry along with established Eastern Shore businesses willing to expand their capabilities to meet the needs of this new industry. Most of the heavy lifting surrounding offshore wind in Maryland has been done locally, as should the final decisions governing such be,” Chambers said.

Rich said the amendment was “a complete surprise, just counterproductive to what I think is good government and good policy.”

“I thought we had positive interaction,” Rich said, recalling 99 percent approval among those commenting at a public hearing. Deluca said those comments were not made by Ocean City property owners.

City Council members didn’t ask Harris to propose the amendment, DeLuca said.

“No. It shocked us. We had a City Council meeting and I made a recommendation that we send a letter to … see where they are on our request to move them out to 26 miles. We copied Andy Harris on all our letters. He knew the city was upset,” DeLuca said.

On his Website, Harris stated the amendment would “prohibit the use of federal funding for reviewing site assessments or construction and operations plans for wind turbines located less than 24 nautical miles from Maryland shorelines.”

“I was disappointed that the developers really don’t appear to care whether or not these windmills are visible from the shore and what that effect would have on local real estate and the tourism industry,” Harris wrote.

The congressman said the tourism industry is one of the primary economic engines driving commerce on the Lower Shore. He quoted Meehan as saying resort residents don’t want to be able to see turbines and are concerned about their property values.

Rich said he’s interested in having a “productive, ongoing conversation with the city about their misconceptions about property values and tourism.”

Harris wrote he’s concerned about a possible increase in constituents’ electricity rates, but Rich said that won’t happen.

“Saying it is more expensive is only true when you look at the subsidy paid by rate payers, 97 cents a month. But in addition to that, we help alleviate the congestion fee that is currently on bills. Each rate payer in Maryland now pays $4 a month to import power from other states,” Rich said.

Another benefit is that turbines create artificial reefs for tourists, extending the tourism season, he said.

In January, as a public hearing was being planned to gather input on the meteorological structure, known as the MET tower, Ernie Colburn, past director of the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce, was hopeful there would be “steel in the water” to begin construction in 2018 or 2019.

Colburn at the time, said the project was proceeding “full speed ahead” and had the potential to be “a huge economic boost to the Lower Shore.”

“The opportunity for businesses here to be involved in the manufacturing and distribution of over 8,000 parts that go into each turbine and the opportunity for operating and maintaining them is huge,” Colburn said.

“This is not just for Salisbury or Maryland. This is an East Coast opportunity, too,” he said.

A longtime proponent of wind energy, Colburn said the “geographic location and infrastructure here are ideal for this project.”

“We have the roads, running north, south, east, west. We have the railroad that runs north-south with fairly flat land. We, of course, have sea and we have a beautiful airport that can be utilized for executives and bringing in supplies,” he said.

Salisbury Mayor Jake Day, too, has supported wind energy.

“We have the institutions and geographic proximity to train the future operators and maintainers of them. As we invest in our people, they will have the skills not only for wind energy, but for other industries, as well,” he said.

Colburn, in a Chamber of Commerce publication, once wrote that there are “huge secondary service opportunities for the off-shore wind farm off Ocean City.”

“For Wicomico County, secondary opportunities exist with the Wicomico River and the Port of Salisbury. A staging area for the construction of both off-shore and land-based props for the turbines. Also barging in cable on the river to the Port of Salisbury where connectors are installed on the ends of this special cable. These cables would then be transported to the construction site and connect between turbines,” he wrote.

Harris, on his Website, wrote there won’t be final action on his amendment until later this year because of a congressional recess in August.

“This gives the developers several months to get together and reformulate the plan that is acceptable to Ocean City. I’m hoping that everyone can come to an agreement by then so that I can withdraw the need for this amendment to remain in the final bill,” he wrote.

“We still have time to talk about this,” Rich said.

“We’re trying to be good citizens.”

 

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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