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An Unpredictable Wind is Coming Towards Delaware

From: Kathleen Rutherford, Executive Director of A Better Delaware

In March 2021, the Biden Administration set a goal to install 30 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2030. According to the White House, hitting this target would create thousands of jobs and provide enough clean electricity to power about 10 million homes in the U.S. every year.

Less than two months later, the U.S. Department of Interior approved the country’s first large-scale offshore wind project – Vineyard Wind 1, a $2.8 billion project consisting of 62 wind turbines situated 15 miles off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, and 35 miles off mainland Massachusetts.

If this project sounds familiar, it’s because a similar one has been a hot topic in Delaware since the idea was first proposed by Ørsted, the world’s leading developer of offshore wind projects (based out of Denmark) in response to the passing of Maryland’s Offshore Wind Act of 2013.

The project, named “Skipjack Wind Farm” is planned to be situated 19 miles off the coast of the Delaware and Maryland beaches, and planned to be built in two phases, starting with the southern Skipjack 1 and northern Skipjack 2 which will span all the way up to downtown Bethany Beach.

Skipjack 1 was initially approved by the Maryland Public Service Commission in 2017 and was planned to go online in 2022, but obstacles have pushed that date back to 2026 (Skipjack 2 is still in the proposal phase).

While the existence of the turbines so close to shore may be alarming on its own, what isn’t immediately recognized is the enormous size of the turbines. They are planned to be GE Haliade-X, turbines with three 351-foot blades, rising more than 850 feet out of the water. This places the size of the turbines as slightly smaller than the Chrysler Building and Eiffel Tower.

Although the total number of Skipjack turbines is rumored to be close to 200, the final number will be determined by the Maryland Public Service Commission.

At that size and distance, the turbines will be easily visible during the day and even at night (thanks to safety lighting for boats and planes). Even Ocean City’s City Council are in opposition to the project unless it’s moved at least 33 miles from shore. In Europe, where offshore wind farms are common, the minimum shore to farm distance is 40 miles.

“The bottom line is we just don’t want citizens, the visitors, the residents, and our 26,000 non-resident property owners to be looking at the industrial view when we’re on the beach in Ocean City,” said Ocean City Mayor Richard Meehan.

With turbines visible from shore what does this mean for our tourism-fueled economy?

Skipjack’s visual impact was studied by the University of Delaware when it was first proposed, 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.

While those statistics are bad, but not awful, since the study, the type of turbine in the plan has nearly doubled (500 feet to 850+ feet) which would give the appearance of the turbines being five miles closer to shore than shown in the initial study.

Using these updated sizes, the Caesar Rodney Institute conducted its own survey of 1,337 coastal residents on the visual impact of Skipjack and nearly 85 percent reported that they were against it.

According to the Delaware Tourism Office, the tourism industry contributed over $3.5 billion to Delaware’s economy in 2018 and accounted for more than 44,000 jobs – most of that in Sussex County – so what would a hit like that look like if more than half of vacationers chose alternative beach destinations? Business owners, hoteliers and restauranteurs would be faced with a huge income hit, potentially one as severe as they saw during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic over the summer of 2020.

Aside from the aesthetics and their related effects, the impact of the farm on local birds, fish, whales, and our beloved horseshoe crabs all come into question – as do the livelihoods of local fishermen who depend on the health of local marine life.

Officials have acknowledged that commercial fishing could take up to a 25 percent hit from the installation of planned wind farms along the east coast and developers are even trying to figure out what could offset these economic damages. Ørsted is currently in a back and forth with the Rhode Island fishing industry during the planning phases of another wind farm 19 miles off their coastline. Ørsted has downsized the project and offering a lump sum of $5.2 million to cover impacts to the industry, but fishermen are saying that sum is too small.

According to NPR, offshore wind could not only negatively impact the fishing industry economically, but safety-wise as well. As fishing boats have fewer open waters, the potential for boat traffic and collisions is expected to increase. For example, the Vineyard project has designed a grid of transit lanes between the turbines which will create a dangerous funneling effect with more boats maneuvering in less space.

One of the worst parts about the plan is that while the project will be partially in Delaware waters, Delawareans will not benefit from the project. For construction, at least 35 percent of the capital budget will be spent with Maryland businesses and manufacturers – a sum expected to top $200 million. Skipjack 1 will also create jobs – for Marylanders – 1,400 in total (913 during the construction phase and 484 during actual operations).

Energy production will be regulated and managed by the State of Maryland, and only a small number of residents will actually use the energy produced (the energy will be fed into the regional PJM electricity grid which is primarily only used in Delaware on Fenwick Island). The farm will not have an impact on Delaware’s green energy goals either.

In the long run, Skipjack could end up raising the cost of electricity for Delawareans … According to the Manhattan Institute, over the past several decades of offshore wind energy in Europe, it’s been shown that performance of turbines can decrease an average of 4.5 percent per year. With Skipjack set to have a 30-year lifespan, turbines will need to be constantly serviced or even replaced to keep up with the initial output.

While the Vineyard 1 farm seems to have set a scary precedent being just 15 miles offshore, residents of New York have shown it’s possible to stop offshore wind farms if the residents are vocal (and rich) enough.

A 15-turbine wind farm was proposed for 35 miles off the coast of the Hamptons and after three years of community organization, millions of dollars raised, and hundreds of thousands spent on PR, the project was shelved. In the April announcement, the halting of the plan was said to be due to concerns from commercial fishing groups.

While Delaware’s beaches may not have a concentration of millionaires (and billionaires) to throw money at their problems, our citizens are in a unique position to have closer access to government, and easy to maintain community relationships given our state’s small size and population.

There have already been some obstacles caused by Delawareans – for example, Ørsted planned to connect the farm to the electricity grid by going through Fenwick Island State Park to a new power facility within the town. The Delaware Department of Natural Resources pushed back in 2020, stating that it would not allow any wetlands to be disturbed by the project.

Yet, this only happened after a memorandum of understanding (MOU) marked “confidential” in the summer of 2019 was signed between the State of Delaware and Ørsted agreeing to $18 million in upgrades to the park in exchange for the 1.25 acres the company would need to transport the electricity through. No residents knew about this MOU at the time though because no discussions about it were made public – and most elected officials weren’t aware of it.

Since the MOU was not legally binding, upon its discovery public outcry in Fenwick Island, the state was forced to backtrack – showing that yes, Delawareans have a voice.