Photo courtesy of Orsted
As Sussex County residents and energy experts clash, the Skipjack Wind Farm project once on the horizon gets pushed out with the current.
Seats were filling up quickly inside the Roland E. Powell Convention Center in Ocean City, Maryland, on Saturday, January 18, 2020, for a public hearing on proposed design changes to the offshore Skipjack Wind Farm, which the Danish firm Ørsted hoped to have operational by 2022.
The renewable energy project was greeted enthusiastically just a few years earlier when the Maryland Public Service Commission approved offshore energy credits for Ørsted to build 15 wind turbines in an area between 17 and 21 miles off the East Coast near Ocean City. At the time, the $720 million project promised to generate enough clean energy to power more than 35,000 homes and create approximately 1,400 jobs, mostly in Maryland.
Now, Skipjack had stalled in the face of mounting public opposition.
At issue were plans by Ørsted to increase the height of the proposed wind turbines by hundreds of feet, making them nearly twice that of the tallest buildings in Baltimore. Bigger turbines are capable of generating more electricity and would make Skipjack one of the largest renewable energy projects on the East Coast. However, increasing the height of these skyscrapers at sea would also make them more plainly visible from Ocean City shoreline, and for that, there was widespread opposition.
When the contentious meeting finally started, local newspapers reported that nearly 1,000 people were in attendance, including state and federal lawmakers. Maryland Delegate Wayne Hartman was one of them and at the time suggested the proposed design changes could harm the coastal economy.
“My concerns started to grow with the size of the turbines,” Hartman explains. “We’ve only got one shot to get these in the right place, which is why people are so concerned. It’s not that Ocean City doesn’t want the wind turbines. We just don’t want to see them.”
Public opposition to Skipjack had also spilled over the border into Delaware as residents here raised concerns about more than the size and visibility of the wind turbines; they were shocked to learn that the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Ørsted to bring power lines ashore on the site of undisturbed wetlands at Fenwick Island State Park.
By year’s end, as the coronavirus ravaged the nation, Ørsted announced the project deadline had been pushed back to 2023. Fenwick Island was now off the table, and legislators in Maryland pushed for the turbines to be relocated farther offshore, away from shipping lanes and a vulnerable horseshoe crab sanctuary. Ørsted still intends to build the wind farm off the coast of Maryland and bring power ashore somewhere in Delaware, but in the meantime, the project is delayed until 2026 at the earliest.
What went wrong?
Skyscrapers at Sea
The offshore wind turbines that Ørsted plans to construct off the coasts of Delaware and Maryland are the most powerful in the world, known by industry experts as the General Electric Haliade X-12.
Standing more than 850 feet tall—the observation deck at the Empire State Building is 1,050 feet, for perspective—these marvels of modern engineering are capable of powering small cities, making them a game-changer in the renewable energy arms race. The immense size of these skyscrapers at sea is necessary to accommodate the turbine blades, each longer than a football field, making the diameter of the blade rotation area roughly equivalent to the tower height of the Golden Gate Bridge, according to figures provided by GE.
The individual components of each turbine will be sourced from suppliers around the world, but the marshalling point will be Baltimore. Smaller components will be preassembled before shipping out to open waters, where cranes the size of oil-drilling platforms will lift the pieces into place, a feat of engineering that was impossible just a few years ago.
In addition to generating power, the wind farm may eventually become home to new artificial reefs as coral and barnacles grow around the foundations, attracting all sorts of sea creatures.
However, the power generated offshore must be brought back to land and connected with the power grid, and that’s where Delaware enters the picture.
Ørsted identified Fenwick Island as an ideal location to bring power onshore and planned to construct a 1-acre electric substation that would connect Skipjack to the power grid.
On July 18, 2019, Ørsted signed an MOU with the state of Delaware to develop sections of Fenwick Island in exchange for $18 million in upgrades to the state park, including but not limited to a new parking structure and nature center, snack bar, outdoor amphitheater, playground, campsites and bathrooms, pedestrian bridge and a rentable ocean pavilion.
The MOU between Skipjack and DNREC was signed without public input. When news leaked, residents were furious, according to emails exchanged with DNREC officials and acquired by Delaware Today through Freedom of Information Act requests.
“My own feeling is that a lot more open, public discussion is needed,” wrote one resident whose name was redacted, in an email to DNREC dated October 22, 2019. “It’s important that DNREC field serious questions about environmental, safety and quality of life impacts. If DNREC is open to revision of the plans as laid out thus far, then that’s one message. Otherwise, I see little advantage or purpose in meeting.”
In another email dated November 13, 2019, the Fenwick Island Society of Homeowners requested that DNREC cancel the proposed upgrades to the state park.
“We understand that the Division of Parks and Ørsted assert that all issues can be addressed during the federal permitting process. This seems disingenuous at best,” the homeowners association wrote. “As you must be aware, a state has far greater leverage with a foreign energy company operating on a federal lease BEFORE it signs off on shore-based facilities. This would be true even if these facilities were proposed to be more properly located in an industrial area as they should be. The state should not mislead people about this.”
In a public meeting a few days later, “Those who supported the project.…were met with loud ‘boos’ and shouts of ‘no,’” according to a report in The News Journal, with one resident saying, “I don’t trust that all the things that you say you will do, that you will do. .I want transparency.”
In response to the growing public outcry, a spokesperson for Ørsted told the The Dispatch that the company had “spent more than a year analyzing potential interconnection sites across the Delmarva peninsula,” and, “in our view, Fenwick Island State Park is not only the ideal location for interconnection but also presents an exciting new model that would both improve a popular state park and advance renewable energy in the region.”
Just over a year later, another Ørsted spokesperson walked back those remarks in an interview with Delaware Today: “The goal here is to be a good community partner. There are a lot of stakeholders involved in these projects. Unfortunately, as Ørsted and our teams began the process—it’s a fairly robust process of site investigation—we discovered that a large portion of the site where we were planning to build the substation was comprised of undisturbed wetlands, and I think that is something Ørsted takes quite seriously, of course, as the most sustainable company in the world, and of course this is an important priority for DNREC as well. So, we sort of came to the conclusion together that this was just not a workable solution.”
Declining an interview with Delaware Today about Skipjack, DNREC provided the following statement via email: “Renewable energy is essential to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions driving the climate change impacts we are already experiencing in Delaware. But, developing a resilient, reliable and clean-energy grid of the future must be in the best interest of our citizens and the environment, and the potential impacts to area wetlands in this proposal was not acceptable to DNREC or Ørsted,” wrote Nikki Lavoie, chief of public affairs. “We had also reviewed public comments and nearly 2,700 survey responses for the project. No detailed plans have been presented to DNREC, and no associated permit applications have been submitted. Any future interconnection along the Delaware coast would be subject to environmental and regulatory permitting processes by DNREC and other agencies, with considerable public input.”
A loss of public trust
But it was too late. Despite the merits of the project, the abundant supply of renewable energy, and the park upgrades and artificial reefs, Ørsted and DNREC quickly learned that it is much easier to lose public trust than it is to gain it back.
One coastal resident who started speaking out is Geoffrey Pohanka, whose family owns car dealerships in Salisbury, Maryland, and the Washington, D.C., suburbs. His father bought waterfront property in Bethany Beach in the late 1970s and built a home there, which Pohanka purchased 10 years ago.
Pohanka describes himself as a conservationist. He drives an electric car and supports renewable energy. However, he is concerned about the visibility of the turbines, as well as what he considers to be a lack of transparency from Delaware, Maryland and Ørsted officials regarding details of the project.
“It’s very difficult to get information about what these will look like,” Pohanka explains, adding that visible wind turbines may have a negative effect on property values, the local economy and perhaps even migratory birds. “I’m concerned about the industrialization of our ocean horizon.”
Regarding the power substation and other upgrades to Fenwick Island State Park, Pohanka scoffs at the plans. “It looked like Coney Island! But the residents wanted to keep it as a beach park.”
Even though all the power generated by Skipjack is destined for Maryland homes, Ørsted has no choice but to bring the power ashore in Delaware because of opposition to the project in Ocean City, which objected to onshoring facilities. With Fenwick Island off the table, there is growing concern among residents of Bethany Beach, including Pohanka, that Ørsted is searching for onshoring sites near their community.
“You won’t find too many people who are totally against clean energy, but it has to be done right, especially when you think about putting onshore facilities in a state park, and in particular in Delaware, which has a fairly minimal amount of coastline that we really need to protect,” says meteorologist Debbie Ryan, who has been visiting the Delaware beaches her entire life. She also worries about the visual impact of the wind turbines. When she wrote a letter to the state last year laying out her concerns, she never heard back.
“Public engagement is important,” she says. “There has been a lot of public concern and letter-writing campaigns, but just don’t get the feeling that we’re hearing back from anyone.”
When asked if DNREC had been responsive to her concerns, Patti Breger said, “We were totally on our own. They weren’t supportive.”
Breger has been a resident of Sussex County for more than 35 years. Although she doesn’t own beachfront property, she is also worried about how it will affect the local economy and coastal environment, which she rightly describes as “fragile.”
“These are protected areas,” Breger says. “None of these power lines should be coming ashore” at the state parks, she says, be it Fenwick Island or Delaware Seashore State Park. “The parks are amazing and need to be left alone.”
Breger is also concerned about the visual impact, especially at night when the blinking red aircraft warning lights atop the turbines will make the ocean horizon look like a runway, she explains.
Regarding the visual impact, at issue is that information about the project initially provided to the public is no longer reliable, says David Stevenson, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy at the Caesar Rodney Institute, a right-leaning policy advocacy group in Delaware.
When Skipjack was first proposed, he says, the wind farm’s visual impact was based on a study conducted by the University of Delaware and funded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which asked 1,725 beachgoers to respond to online visual simulations of wind turbines approximately 500 feet tall and located 20 miles or closer offshore. The study found that turbines were more likely to result in a negative beach experience when located 12.5 miles offshore, with 20 percent opposed, compared to 20 miles offshore, with just 10 percent opposed.
However, once Ørsted increased the height of the turbines to 850 feet, “it’s the equivalent of moving the turbines 5 miles closer to shore,” Stevenson suggests, adding that the turbines should be at least 30 miles offshore, at which point they are more or less invisible. This, however, is highly unlikely, as the Maryland Public Service Commission has already approved the larger GE turbines for Skipjack, which are to be located slightly more than 20 miles offshore.
When the Caesar Rodney Institute conducted its own survey of 1,337 coastal residents on the visual impact of Skipjack, nearly 85 percent reported that they were against it. When residents in Bethany Beach held a town hall to discuss the project, the opposition was overwhelming, Stevenson says.
“There was really a passionate response. The folks we’re talking to are not opposed to renewable energy. They’re not even opposed to offshore wind. They simply want Skipjack farther out so it can’t be seen from the beach.”
One of the authors of that study, George Parsons, the E.I. DuPont professor in the School of Marine Science and Policy at the University of Delaware, agreed that the study has its limitations and should not be used to assess the visual impact of turbines that are 850 feet tall.
“You have to be careful transferring our results,” Parsons says, adding that the study also includes some good news for offshore wind developers. Visible wind turbines located between 15 and 20 miles offshore may result in a more positive experience for some beachgoers because of the visual reminder that something positive is being done for the environment.
But even then, Parsons says, at that distance “The overwhelming majority says, ‘We don’t care one way or the other.’”
Renewable energy is essential to reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions driving the effects of climate change that Delaware is already experiencing. As assembly of the turbines begins, DNREC awaits Ørsted’s revised plans for where to bring the power ashore, which would then be subject to environmental review. Until then, the future of this project remains … up in the air.