Commentary: Beach view and economy under threat

Beach lovers visit eastern Sussex County for the ocean, and a pristine view to the horizon is critical to beach enjoyment. In many ways the view to the horizon would be recognized by Native Americans who fished on the beach a thousand years ago. Counting Crows song, They Paved Over Paradise, says, ‘you don’t know what you’ve lost till it’s gone”, resonates with us because it’s true. We are about to lose that horizon view while no one is paying attention.

Two companies have leases in federal waters extending all the way from the Ocean City inlet to north Rehoboth. One company wants to build the tallest industrial offshore wind project in the world using wind turbines as large as the Chrysler Building in Manhattan. When shown visualizations of what the view could be when the leases are built out, and adjusting for the actual details of the proposed projects, 20 to 30 percent of beach lovers say they would go elsewhere, and 30 percent of homeowners would sell their homes.

Even more people will object when they see nighttime views of flashing red airplane warning lights. Imagine that field of lights stretching from Rehoboth to Ocean City. For perspective, the proposed industrial sized turbines planned for this project are four times taller than the one in Lewes.

Can we put a price on this loss of view? It turns out we can. The Delaware Department of Tourism estimates the direct economic value of beach tourism is about $2 billion a year, supporting over 18,000 jobs. In a worst case scenario, counting direct, and indirect losses in round numbers, the beach economy could lose a billion dollars a year in tourist revenue, and 9,000 jobs.

Let’s be clear. This is not about whether wind or solar projects are built. It’s about where. During the Maryland approval process a consultant concluded the offshore projects would simply replace onshore wind projects which sell electric power at one-fourth the price, requiring one-twentieth of the subsidies from electric customers. We could build a whole lot more wind and solar for what it is costing to build offshore.

The projects exist because of federal decisions to offer leases, and Maryland’s state government decisions to offer the offshore wind companies a guarantee of $5 billion in revenue backed up by Maryland electric customers. Ocean City, Maryland opposes the state plan out of concern for lost tourism from the negative impacts of the view of wind turbines off the coast, and has refused to allow power transmission cables to come ashore if the turbines are visible from the coast.

The only leverage Delaware beach towns have to stop these projects is to follow Ocean City’s lead and work to change the state approval to bring electric transmission cables onshore. Our beach communities need to hold hearings, to receive public comment, and to vote for resolutions for, or against these offshore wind projects, just like they did when there was a threat from off shore oil drilling. The towns passed resolutions opposing the drilling, and the state amended the Coastal Zone Act to prohibit pipelines from coming ashore.

The deeper we dig into the process used to approve the projects, the more disturbing things become. For example, the State Park Division is asking for comments on bringing electric transmission cables ashore at Fenwick Island State Park, and building two power sub-stations. Planned improvements to the park infrastructure include adding a parking garage, and pickle ball courts.

Yet, the agreement with wind developer Ørsted was already signed on July, 18. Comments generally come before contracts are signed, not after. No environmental, navigation, geotechnical, or economic impact studies have been done. However, the agreement states numerous state permits will be granted with no mention of any studies. Is a flood prone barrier island the right place for power transmission substations? Do the park neighbors have any real say in an already signed agreement?

The agreement with Ørsted leaves a five year window to obtain permits. Good thing they left so much time as signs are not good the project will be approved quickly. Significantly, the Maryland Energy Administration asked the Maryland Public Service Commission to re-open the approval docket. The PSC approval started with turbines about 300 feet high, increased to 459 feet, and as of September 24, to 853 feet, with even taller turbines on the drawing board. MEA “believes these changes demand additional review.”

A review could take a long time, no doubt Ocean City will request a review of the economic impact study which ignored the potential impacts on tourism. Our state parks division signed the Fenwick Island agreement before the taller turbines were announced.

When the U.S Interior Department, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management put the leases up for bid they had completed minimal studies on the environmental, navigational, fisheries, and economic impact needed to give final approval of offshore wind projects. They still haven’t completed the final studies. In August BOEM took a step back to review the cumulative impact of offshore wind which is likely to further delay project permitting.

The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service has complained the BOEM initial studies did a poor job on the fisheries impact analysis. Impacts on tourism were not considered. Bird and bat impacts have not adequately been covered. Honestly, who in their right mind would put a 40 square mile gauntlet of whirling turbine blades almost a thousand feet high directly in the middle of the Atlantic Flyway, one of North America’s major annual migration routes for millions of birds?

The University of Delaware received hundreds of thousands of dollars from BOEM to conduct an East coast survey of how tourists would react to offshore wind. This is a key issue in determining economic impacts. The survey measured reactions to daytime and night visualizations of what the project would look like. A similar study from North Carolina State University found dramatically higher negative reactions to the nighttime images. However, the Delaware study did not publish the results of the nighttime images. Why not?

U.S Rep. Andy Harris’s office confirmed this week the Coast Guard is in the final stages of designating part of the southern lease area off the Ocean City coast as a navigational fairway which would preclude the construction of wind turbines in that area.

The Ørsted project requires the gathering of meteorological data for one year from an ocean based tower. A special boat required to erect the tower arrived off the Delaware coast in September, but has sailed away without erecting the tower. This will result in another lengthy delay.

It is clear wind projects off the Delaware coast face major hurdles. Given all these concerns, why is the state in such a rush to sign a long term agreement? We hope our beach towns will do their due diligence on this topic. We hope our Delaware politicians, including the federal delegation, will work to protect the ecology of our state parks, and the will of beach towns.

David T. Stevenson, is policy director for the Center of Energy Competitiveness at the Caesar Rodney Institute.

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