In the ongoing, drawn-out saga of Maryland’s offshore wind projects, there have been at least two notable events this year. The first was the Maryland Public Service Commission’s recent decision to give two proposed wind farms near Ocean City further public review. Why? Because the developers are proposing turbines 200 feet or more taller than originally planned. The other was a decision by the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities to authorize construction of a wind farm off the coast of Atlantic City.
So if we’re going to talk big, let’s have some perspective. The turbines proposed for the Skipjack Wind Farm, for example, would be 863 feet tall, which is huge, the equivalent of two Baltimore World Trade Centers stacked on top of each other with enough room to add a four-story building on the tippy-top. If you stood next to such a turbine, you’d undoubtedly be impressed. But the chief complaint of Ocean City is that wind turbines will mar the view from the beach. Well, Skipjack’s no-more-than 15 turbines, as gargantuan as they are up close, would be 17 miles away which makes them tiny on the horizon and then only on days that are clear enough to see that far.
But if you want to talk big, here’s the really large problem: Atlantic City’s offshore wind project is on a scale that dwarfs what’s happening (or not happening) in Maryland. New Jersey approved 1100 megawatts of electrical power generation. Maryland’s two projects add up to less than 400 MW. And that’s not all, the Garden State has committed to fostering 7,500 MW of offshore wind power by 2035 or nearly 20 times what’s under development off Maryland’s coast. Oh, and they expect to have the extra-tall turbines 15 miles off the beaches, too. Apparently, they’ve done the math. They know how small the impact will be on tourism.
Mind you, this isn’t just some theoretical discussion about which state gets bragging rights to offshore wind dominance. When offshore wind was first proposed when Martin O’Malley was governor, part of the pitch was to assume a leadership role in U.S. wind development. The idea was that Maryland would be a center for offshore wind development. The first operating facility in the U.S., the Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Rhode Island opened in 2016 but now dozens more are under development, some with public funds. The longer Maryland delays, the less chance we’ll reap the hundreds, if not thousands of jobs, that early development may bring.
It would be one thing if Ocean City’s steadfast opposition was grounded in legitimate concerns, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Their assumption that tourism or property values would be diminished by the presence of turbines hasn’t proved out in Rhode Island — or in other countries where off-shore wind is more prevalent. One study released this summer by the University of Rhode Island found local tourism has increased 18% since the offshore turbines were built (closer to shore than what is contemplated in Ocean City, by the way). It’s not hard to envision tourists attracted to a resort that is powered by clean energy and has taken up the fight against climate change. And, by the way, who says turbines are unsightly? The folks who fly the planes dragging advertising banners across the beachfront? The owners of the shipping vessels visible from the shore? The patrons of boardwalk bars with “brass balls” or “hooters” incorporated in their names?
The reason the turbines are now so tall is that this is where the technology has gone. The PSC may yet re-approve the project, but this further delay shouldn’t have been necessary in the first place. The agency had the authority to review such changes administratively. For a governor who claims Maryland is “open for business,” Mr. Hogan has shown little enthusiasm for off-shore wind projects that bring well-paid jobs, including at Baltimore County’s Tradepoint Atlantic facility, a planned staging area for Skipjack which is supposed to be completed and operational by 2022. Delaware has been more welcoming of wind power. It now appears Skipjack will be connected to the electrical grid by way of Fenwick Island State Park in exchange for $15 million worth of upgrades to The First State’s southernmost park. But that’s just one small piece of the enormous economic opportunity Maryland is in danger of missing out on because a coterie of officials are fearful of 800-foot-tall structures a dozen miles or more away from shore.