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Huge crowd packs OC hearing

Source: 
The Banner

OCEAN CITTY - Proposals to erect the tallest offshore wind mills in the world off Maryland and Delaware's popular Ocean City and Fenwick Island beaches drew a huge, boisterous crowd to a hearing at the Roland E. Powell Convention Center in Ocean City on Saturday.

More than a dozen elected officials addressed the crowd, estimated by the local fire department at over 1,800 people. All but one of the legislators criticized – to thunderous applause - the more than $2 billion project, saying the wind turbines, some 854 feet tall and almost as high as the Chrysler Building in Chicago, would spoil the pristine sea view, decimate tourism and clobber real estate values.

"We support the new jobs, we support the economic benefit these will provide," Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan told the hearing, chaired by the Maryland Public Service Commission, "The only thing we ask is that the wind turbines be moved further offshore and out of visibility."

Developers plan to site the wind farm off OC about 20 miles from shore. The wind farm off Delaware would stand about 28 miles away from the Ocean City pier at 146th St.

A letter from the mayor, handed to everyone who entered the packed hall and addressed to OC residents and property owners, said the city wants the windmills "at least 33 miles from shore" so they cannot be seen. "This can be done," the letter added, "Virginia recently approved a project 27 miles off their coast."

Todd Sumner, director of permitting for U.S. Wind, which is to build the wind farm off OC, told the meeting there would be a mix of 8.6 and 10 megawatt turbines, made by Siemens, as well as General Electric's Halide X 12 MW turbines. "At night, you'll see some lights only coming on if an aircraft is approaching. We're using the best available technology to avoid nighttime impacts. The lights go off once that aircraft passes."

Mayor Meehan told the hearing the massive turbines would be "three times taller than the highest building in Ocean City. They'd be the tallest structure in Maryland, if built on land. We only get one chance to get this right. Let's get it right," he told the audience, to enthusiastic clapping and cheers.

His letter called on the Commission to hold a new hearing "to determine if additional restrictions should be placed on the projects due to the drastically increased size of the turbines."

In 2017, the Commission approved a plan to install 63 much smaller windmills in the Atlantic Ocean, 12 miles off Maryland and Delaware, by 2022. They would stand 579 feet tall and generate six megawatts of power each.

Late last year, U.S. Wind, an Italian-owned company slated to erect the wind farm off OC, and Orsted, a Danish company due to build the one off Delaware, announced they would erect only 32 windmills, but more modern versions, including the 854-foot, 12 MW turbines. They said the project would cost less, because taller windmills could access stronger winds, generate more power and fewer would be needed.

Congressman Andy Harris told the crowd, to cheers, "This is one of the most amazing cases of bait and switch that I have ever seen. Until Oct. I was completely unaware that 12 MW turbines were even being considered."

If the updated plan were agreed, U.S.Wind would have to build the project closer to shore because it goes through shipping lanes, he said, adding that the Federal Aviation Administration had not approved the light system proposed for the towering wind farm to warn aircraft at night and the lights would have to be on all the time. OC says the shipping lanes run 20 to 22 miles from shore.

Congressman Harris concluded his address, to wild cheering and applause: "Ladies and gentlemen, I urge you to open an evidentiary hearing!" An evidentiary hearing is any court proceeding that involves witnesses giving testimony under oath, before a judge, and in some cases presenting documentary evidence.

Maryland Senator Steve Hershey, who represents the upper Eastern Shore, echoed the call for an evidentiary hearing and remarked, "This has to be the largest public hearing I've ever seen."

State Delegate Chris Adams, a self-described fifth generation waterman who represents Dorchester, Wicomico, Caroline and Talbot counties, said: "This project will desecrate the view. It's offensive to people of the Eastern Shore. It will forever affect the Eastern Shore and the beauty of its beaches." He also called for an evidentiary hearing.

Only one lawmaker, State Delegate Lorig Kharkoudian, saw things differently. "We are facing a climate crisis. The science is clear," she said, "Offshore wind is a crucial piece of this puzzle and it creates an incredible opportunity for economic development in the state." Amid loud boos from the audience, she concluded: "I want to urge the Commission not to slow down and to move as quickly as possible."

Almost all the labor leaders, blue collar workers, local business owners, environmentalists and private citizens who spoke after the politicians praised the project for the work and environmental benefits it could generate. Wind farms can help fight climate change by reducing the use of fossil fuel to generate electricity.

A 16-year-old activist said climate change posed a far greater threat to OC than a view of windmills on the horizon because the rising waters and floods that accompany it could put the resort permanently underwater within our lifetimes.

A retired biology teacher said evidence from offshore wind farms elsewhere showed: "The turbines will support a diversity of fish and birds feeding off them" and "a new industry of tour boats going out to see the turbines." He thanked manufacturers for making longer blades because they turn more slowly, so pose less of a threat to migrating birds. "As a birder, I support the turbines," he concluded.

Dr. David Curson, director of Bird Conservation at Audubon Maryland-D.C., said most migrating birds would avoid impact because they fly closer to shore. "A much greater threat is climate change": two thirds of bird species face extinction due to warming temperatures. "Larger turbines are better for the environment," he said, noting that fewer turbines meant less chance of birds flying into them and "less disturbance to foraging grounds."

OC contends the wind farm could harm birds migrating over the Atlantic and damage marine life, including whales, whose navigation could be confused by the "electronic fields created by the generators and transmission cables."

The resort town also opposes the project because the developers have not said where, on land, they will put the transmission connections – "monster cables, large transformers, etc. – required to connect to the power grid."

Its key concern is that a view of wind mills from the beach will put off tourists, who add "several billion dollars to our economy." The mayor's letter quoted studies by the University of Delaware and North Carolina State University showing tourism drops "significantly when turbines are in view."

Key to the emotions swirling around the issue of the wind farms planned for the coast of Maryland and Delaware is how much of the windmills can people on land actually see?

Mayor Meehan's letter and a handout from the group Save Our Beach View showed simulated pictures from a beach, with turbines about the size of match sticks on the horizon. But U.S. Wind and Orsted exhibits at the hearing showed pictures with only barely discernible smudges in the distance.

David Stevens, a Cambridge resident and 85th on a list of almost 160 people who signed up to speak, said a mathematical formula he found at the Bureau of Energy Management's website (then look for "wind turbine visualization simulation") calculates how large a windmill appears at distance. It showed the proposed turbines would look barely 1/8 of an inch high, on a clear day. The weather is often hazy along the coast.

Steven Simkins, technical project manager for Orsted U.S. Offshore Wind, told The Banner that 12MW turbines have never before been installed at sea. Three prototypes have been tested on the British and Dutch coasts, "where we're seeing a lot of similar conditions as you would offshore." He said it was also easier to see "how components inside operate" when the test turbines are on the coast.

OC says Marylanders have been subsidizing the project through extra charges on their electric bills, yet the power produced will cost 300 percent more than current rates. Other sources say the cost of electricity from wind will plunge.

Although wind turbines elsewhere have attracted fish and boosted fishing, as well as bringing eco-tourists, Ocean City's "commercial fishing industry opposes the offshore wind turbines due to their harmful impact on the fishing industry," Mayor Meehan's letter said.

Carbon dioxide and other pollutants in the air would "increase because of the wind turbine projects," according to Save Our Beach View.

Susan Olsen, a Cambridge resident and Chair of the Sierra Club of the Lower Eastern Shore, reminded the audience that "by law, we must transition to clean energy now." Maryland last year passed the Clean Energy Jobs Act and "our state goal is to be 50 percent renewable energy by 2030."

Citizens have until Jan. 31 to send their comments on the projects to the Commission. The panel will read every one before deciding what to do next, said the Commission's Communications Director Tori Leonard.

Email www.psc.state.md.us or

write to: Andrew S. Johnston, executive secretary, Maryland Public Service Commission, William Donald Schaefer Tower, 6 St. Paul St., Baltimore, MD 21202.

People wanting to comment on the potential use of Fenwick Island State Park for transmission cables and substations may contact Governor John Carney of Delaware at: 302-744-4101 or governor.carney@delaware.gov.

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