Ocean City's effort to keep windmills far offshore fails as Maryland delegates reject proposal

A Maryland House of Delegates committee on Friday rejected a proposal that called for prohibiting wind farms from being built within 30 miles of Ocean City’s coast, a blow to the resort town’s effort to preserve beach vistas.

But town officials aren’t done fighting.

Ocean City officials have said that the sight of windmills on the horizon could dampen tourism spending and send visitors to the Jersey Shore or Virginia Beach. Two offshore wind developers are planning to build turbines off Maryland’s coast, after state regulators last year approved ratepayer subsidies for the projects that could cost typical utility customers $1 a month.

Mayor Rick Meehan said he had expected the proposed legislation to fail as lawmakers have fought for years over whether to allow wind farms off Maryland’s coast until the General Assembly in 2013 approved a process for constructing them that still has broad support. Meehan and other town officials are now turning their attention to efforts at the federal level, and potentially a second state-level review, to press regulators to keep wind turbines as far from beaches as possible.

“We support wind energy. We support clean energy,” Meehan said. “We just don’t want to see it at the detriment to Ocean City, our property owners and our economy.”

At a hearing on the bill last week, Kevin Hughes, chairman of the Maryland Public Service Commission, suggested that one of the wind farm projects could come before the panel again because developer U.S. Wind has said it plans to use larger wind turbines than it initially proposed.

Del. Christopher Adams, an Eastern Shore Republican who sponsored the bill that was voted down, said he thinks that possible new review “suggests that there will be further deliberation” on Maryland wind farm proposals.

Critics of the plans are also rooting for an effort by U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, the state’s lone Republican in Congress who represents the Eastern Shore, to tie a similar minimum-distance restriction to federal spending on offshore wind. And they plan to weigh in as federal officials consider permit applications and construction plans for the projects later this year.

The Maryland Climate Coalition cheered the action by the House Economic Matters committee.

“Once again, the General Assembly has affirmed its commitment to ensuring that Maryland is a clean energy leader and economic powerhouse,” the group said in a statement. “This vote will help ensure that these offshore wind projects years in the making can fulfill their promise to provide Maryland residents with health and climate benefits, good jobs, and more stable electricity rates. These offshore wind projects will be a huge source of pride for our state.”

The U.S. Wind project is the main target of concern for Ocean City officials. The subsidiary of Italian energy and construction company Toto Holdings SpA is planning to build up to 62 turbines as close as 15 miles off the coast of Ocean City. The earliest phase of turbine construction would occur about 20 miles offshore. The $1.4 billion project is scheduled to start operating in 2020.

Officials with the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said they expect to receive more detailed plans for construction and operation from U.S. Wind in the fall, initiating a round of environmental impact study and public comment.

That process “will inform our decisions on whether to approve the project, and, if so, whether to apply mitigation measures to address potential impacts,” a bureau spokesperson said.

Skipjack Offshore Wind LLC, a subsidiary of Rhode Island-based Deepwater Wind Holdings LLC, is planning a $720 million wind farm north of the U.S. Wind project. It could launch as early as 2023 and include 15 turbines at least 20 miles off the Maryland coast.

Both U.S. Wind and Skipjack publicly opposed the legislation that would have pushed their projects farther off shore. Such restrictions could kill Maryland’s ability to become a leader in offshore wind, company officials have said. There is currently only one wind farm along U.S. coastlines: the five-turbine Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Rhode Island that is owned by Deepwater Wind.

Paul Rich, director of project development for U.S. Wind, said the company’s wind farm would be an economic boost for Maryland, with operations in Ocean City and also at a manufacturing center planned for the Tradepoint Atlantic development in Baltimore County. He could not be reached for comment Monday.

Deepwater CEO Jeff Grybowski warned lawmakers that changing the rules that the offshore wind industry operates under in Maryland would scare off energy developers.

“If this bill passes, you are repealing the offshore wind legislation that this committee fought so hard for for so many years,” Grybowski told delegates last week. “I don’t believe the offshore wind community will come back to Maryland.”

sdance@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ssdance

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
43°