If a Delawarean goes to the beach and sees a line of wind turbines in the distance, what is the impact?
Does he vow to never again visit the eyesore, or does he hire a boat to tour the engineering marvel? When he turns on the air conditioning at home, does he save money because of the wind power, or pay an extra dollar to subsidize the renewable energy? Will his children’s asthma improve because of fewer fossil fuels, or will the environment change from unforeseen impacts of new technology?
While state and federal governments decide their path forward in using offshore wind energy, the public needs to learn about the impacts of turbines that could be as close as 15 to 20 miles offshore.
That was the purpose of Delaware Sea Grant’s recent lecture series. On July 12 in Bethany Beach, they hosted the Delaware Coast Series: “Offshore Wind in Delaware and the Mid-Atlantic.”
The goal is to bring federal government, local officials, industry representatives and the public into one room to have conversation on environmental issues “because we know there are no easy answers,” said Sea Grant scientist Jamē McCray.
As far as offshore wind-energy projects go, Maryland is now ahead of Delaware — which was at one time supposed to have the country’s first offshore wind project. But the Bluewater Wind company transferred hands twice after the project was announced, until NRG eventually canceled the Delaware project in 2011.
In 2017, Delaware started again. Gov. John Carney established the Offshore Wind Working Group by executive order, to study how Delaware could participate in developing offshore wind; identify economic and environmental benefits; and to make specific recommendations for Delaware to move forward in offshore wind power development.
They made three recommendations.
First, Delaware should not immediately attempt to procure wind energy from Maryland’s already-approved projects.
Next, they suggested that Delaware consider almost anything else, including a large-scale purchase of power; smaller projects until the market is more affordable; waiting for developers to propose specific projects nearby; or flat-out considering other renewable resources instead of offshore wind.
They concluded with six pages of questions that they said lawmakers and regulators should ask when considering a path forward.
Now is the time for public engagement, because nothing is in the water yet, said Bonnie Ram, associate director of strategic initiatives at the University of Delaware’s Center for Carbon-free Power Integration (CCPI).
The effort started with Maryland’s decision to provide financial incentives for two projects; the Offshore Wind Working Group’s research; Delaware’s minimal use of renewable energy, despite a 25-percent renewables goal; Sussex County leaders not realizing the potential for the industry; untapped local expertise; and region’s limited economic industries.
“Just because the lease has been granted — there are many, many steps before they get in the water,” Ram said. “Delaware’s right smack in the middle of this. … We are located in a very strategic way” if Delaware’s public wants to participate in creating wind energy.
In federal waters (which begin 3 miles offshore), lease sites are managed by the Bureau of Offshore Energy Management (BOEM). Although lease sites are named after the states they border, it’s rather a misnomer.
“The states have no control over them,” said Paul Rich, U.S. Wind director of development.
States can choose to invest in any nearby leasing site, which is why Maryland will purchase energy from the “Delaware” site. Plus, the “Maryland” site nudges into the same latitude as Fenwick Island.
“That’s why the Maryland commission could make a decision on a Delaware lease,” Ram said.
Maryland is willing to help the wind companies with subsidies to make wind power more affordable to produce, on par with other energies. But in return, Maryland extracted other promises from the companies, such as their use of Baltimore’s port of Sparrow’s Point.
For the developer companies, purchasing a lease is simply a “license to start the process. … This is a very long timeline,” Ram said. The companies are submitting their site assessment plans (SAPs), which leads to a lot of site assessment.
For BOEM to even create (and later, approve) these sites required in-depth analysis of fishing grounds, shipping lanes, unexploded ordinances, and international migration routes of birds and sea life.
Questions and opinions
Delaware could consider potential benefits of wind-power projects, such as potential port upgrades and dredging of waterways; tourism or boat tours; new jobs, education and training; and better health for Delawareans breathing less carbon emissions.
Delaware must also consider the challenges: people’s values, visibility, aesthetics, costs to ratepayers, distribution of benefits, environmental protections, and even social distrust of institutions and scientists. Ultimately, who pays and who benefits?
Rhode Island is currently the only state with offshore wind power, having installed five turbines directly in state waters, within 3 miles of the coast. It has helped the state replace diesel fuel as a power source, Ram said. But she said hundreds of turbines in a bigger, yet much farther out to sea, area would be a different story for the public to consider.
Agencies are studying how birds and fish react to the turbines, construction noise and underground transmission lines. Geophysical surveys and seismic testing would have a milder impact on marine life, compared to oil and offshore gas exploration that has seen considerable public opposition along the Atlantic.
“What the wind industry is doing is very, very different from the offshore oil and gas, [who] have to use a lot more acoustic energy,” which can impact marine life when the soundwaves piece the seafloor to sketch an accurate picture of sediment, said John Madsen, U.D. professor and geophysicist.
Tourism surveys have suggested that some people will be drawn specifically to turbines, while others will be affronted. Others won’t care, leading to net overall minor effects on tourism, said Jeremy Firestone, CCPI director.
Recreational anglers might appreciate the reef effect that typically builds around underwater structures, although that can displace some stationary species, such as scallops.
Builders must also consider sea-level rise when installing infrastructure.
“Climate change is the reason we’re here,” Ram said.
Since Denmark installed the first offshore wind turbine in 1991, European wind power has become more affordable, thanks to the economy of scale.
“Offshore wind is no longer an exotic option. It’s a significant [industry] in Europe,” said AGD’s Deniz Ozkan, adding that it could be competitive in the U.S., too, after the infrastructure, ports and ships are ready.
Having made a career of studying wind, U.D. Professor Christina Archer said she is excited to see offshore wind. She acknowledged that some people dislike the aesthetics, but “I just feel like people in the U.S. have not seen turbines. They have not seen offshore windfarms.
“They make decisions based on the image in their heads … and then you see it [and] ‘That’s it? If I really squint, and it’s a clear day…’” she said of the diagrams that showed tiny white wind turbines at various distances from the coast. “It’s not this monstrosity that they think. It’s rather beautiful.”
She pointed out that the Golden Gate Bridge was once maligned for ruining the cliffside views, and now property value increase within eyesight of the structure.
Skipjack Offshore Energy (a subsidiary of Deepwater Wind) holds the Delaware wind-power lease, on a triangular plot from about Rehoboth Beach to Fenwick Island. Right now, they’re considering building 15 turbines in the southern half of the 96,400-acre lease area.
U.S. Wind, meanwhile, has purchased the 79,707-acre Maryland lease area, proposing 62 turbines stacked near Ocean City, Md., toward Fenwick Island.
The turbine size for that project is yet to be determined, as Marylanders have requested U.S. Wind begin their project farther offshore and as new technology allows for more efficient turbines. Rich said they’ll reveal the specific size and location in the construction and operations plan (COP) submitted to BOEM for approval.
“We’re looking to begin construction out here in 2020,” Paul Rich of U.S. Wind said.
After federal officials permitted companies to lease the offshore sites, Maryland stepped up as the first electric customer. In 2017, the Maryland Public Service Commission approved Deepwater Wind and U.S. Wind to deliver a total of 368 megawatts to Maryland customers. So Maryland would be responsible for that clean energy, but also some investment from rate-payers to subsidize the new power.
The northern Delaware lease area is claimed by GSOE, but Deepwater has the option to develop it if Delaware and New Jersey come up with a purchase agreement. New Jersey has expressed an interest, so it’s time for Delaware to jump on board, too, Simkins said. “Hint, hint to Delaware, to say, ‘Oh, we want some power, too.”
But any other state could also request to develop that site.
Deepwater and U.S. Wind are consistently both in the room at events like this. They bring tables and maps, and answer questions until the bitter end.
“We’re competition until the financial decisions are made. … At that point, we’re both doing really the same thing,” which is to provide affordable energy, said Rich. “Doing these things together unifies us under the industry banner.”
If New Jersey and Delaware start shopping for wind power, the corporations will become competitors again.
Delaware’s Offshore Wind Working Group information and report are posted at de.gov/offshorewind. And people can learn more about free public programs by Delaware Sea Grant at www.deseagrant.org/events-all.
Pie in the sky
Transmission cables are roughly the width of a bowling ball, weighing 55 pounds per foot. The steel exterior and other layers protect the three copper transmission lines and fiber-optic cable, which communicates electronically with the turbines.
Some people at the recent event said they were baffled that the transmission lines from the two offshore farms could potentially crisscross before connecting to power stations on land. From Maryland’s lease, U.S. Wind will connect to the power plant at Indian River. But Deepwater, which hasn’t selected an approve connection point, could possibly connect Delaware’s lease to Maryland’s east coast.
Atlantic Grid Development is an independent company that has proposed a single transmission system for offshore wind power. Their “backbone” system would stretch down the Mid-Atlantic and connect to the land in strategic, streamlined points. The wind companies would pay them for transmission capabilities. Plus, if a company ever left, the infrastructure would remain, just like power lines on land.
But the individual companies haven’t bitten that lure yet. Although AGD’s Deniz Ozkan called it smart planning that would ultimately save money and effort, Deepwater’s Simkins said that trust and timing make companies hesitant. They’d have to trust each other and a transmission system that they don’t own. Plus, the companies would have to be on similar timelines for permitting and building.
By Laura Walter