Judging from the long line of traffic to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge during Labor Day weekend, the Eastern Shore of Maryland and the beach at Ocean City remain hugely popular destinations for vacationers. That people from all over remain so willing to tolerate heavy traffic in order to reach the beach would seem to refute arguments that the construction of a wind-energy farm several miles offshore will hurt Ocean City tourism.
And yet Mayor Rick Meehan, among others, continues to complain that the wind turbines will be erected too close to the resort — about 17 miles offshore. The mayor worries that the sight of turbines spinning on the horizon will disturb the view from the beach and turn off tourists.
Among those who continue to join Meehan in opposition to the wind farm is Rep. Andy Harris. In a statement to WBOC-TV last month, the Republican 1st District congressman listed several reasons, including a concern that the turbines pose a national security risk.
“If and when they are built, the large array of wind turbines visible from our coast will have far reaching and long lasting consequences,” Harris said. “Not only will they sully the pristine view from Ocean City, negatively affecting tourism, recreational and commercial fishing, as well as local property values in the largest economy on the shore, they also pose significant environmental, navigational and national security risks."
The notion that spinning white blades 14, 15 or even 17 miles offshore would sour vacationers and ruin Ocean City property values is absurd. The irony is that wind and other sources of renewable energy are key to slowing the effects of the climate crisis, and one of those effects is sea-level rise, something that, unaddressed, poses a real threat to beach-front property in Ocean City. In fact, it’s more than a threat. A study of property development in Maryland tidal areas estimated that Ocean City and West Ocean City had lost about $50 million in unrealized growth because of sea-level rise from 2005 to 2017. (The study came from Columbia University and the First Street Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to assessing flood risk.)
The aesthetic complaint about offshore turbines is not new. But national security? What’s that all about?
What are Harris’ concerns? His staff sent me an April letter from the congressman to Patrick Shanahan, the acting secretary of defense, asking questions about wind turbine effects on the Navy’s radar and sonar systems and on air-defense of the U.S. coast and ports. “Will incoming aircraft be difficult to track over an offshore wind farm,” Harris asked, “particularly should that aircraft’s transponder be turned off as occurred in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks?”
Did the acting secretary provide answers? I don’t know. Harris’ staff never get back to me on that.
Don’t worry: National security is already in the mix when developers propose wind farms on land or offshore. A key word in all of this is “mitigation.” The military and developers of wind farms apparently work together, with the military mitigating any problems with the proposed locations and scope of turbine arrays.
You know why? Because, five years ago, the Pentagon identified climate change as an immediate threat to national security, citing increasing risks from terrorism, the spread of disease, poverty and famine. It anticipated increased demands for military responses when extreme weather causes disasters and creates humanitarian crises around the world. So, given that, it’s in the military’s interests to see that we develop renewable sources of energy, like wind power.
“What I can tell you,” said Salvo Vitale, general counsel for U.S. Wind, one of two companies that won approval to erect the turbines off Ocean City, “is that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management operates in close collaboration with the Department of Defense and the U.S. Coast Guard. All the agencies that have a say in this project will be involved in the permitting process. This should mitigate any concerns regarding national security.”
Two studies funded by the Department of Energy in 2013 and 2014 assessed the military’s ability to adapt to wind farms, and researchers used modeling to project potential problems and ways to mitigate them. Neither study suggested that turbine effects on radar would rise above a manageable level. “The U.S. government is committed to the advancement of renewable energy deployment,” the latter study concluded, “and remains active in research and development to mitigate wind turbine/radar interference.”
So, in terms of national security, let’s be clear: Climate change and its consequences pose the major and immediate threats, not wind turbines. Wind turbines are part of a strategy to slow the effects of climate change, and the Pentagon is already on board and on the case. The longer we delay, the greater our risk of a full-blown crisis, and sooner than we dare to think.