South Bethany delays taking stand on windmills

It’s been more than a year since South Bethany officials first heard a controversial proposal from Winergy Power LLC to place power-generating wind turbines off the coast of Southern Delaware.

In that time, Councilwoman Bonnie Lambertson has collected a towering stack of materials on the issue of wind power, but the council has yet to make a decision on whether the town will oppose or favor such a plan.

Outgoing Councilman Bob Cestone suggested the time might be ripe to make such a call, and Lambertson took the opportunity of the council’s May 11 workshop/special meeting to discuss the matter.

The consensus, after a lengthy discourse: it would be premature for the council to take a formal stance on the windmills.

Lambertson noted that it had been more than a year since the proposal, at which the town officials had been told a test generation facility would likely be ready within a year. However, she said, the permits for such a facility were not even yet in place.

She also noted recent stumbles in getting projects going off the coast of Nantucket, as well as to the south, in the Virginia Beach area. The lengthy permitting process was proving a major problem for Winergy, she said, and many opposed near-coastal wind farms.

The public input on the matter had also been limited to date, Lambertson said. “I’ve received little input except that people don’t want to see it from the beach,” she explained.

That is the key point of the controversy – the potential of giant wind turbines to spoil the view from some of the area’s most expensive property. Estimates equate the initial proposal to being able to see the windmills on the horizon as approximately 1 foot high from the town’s beaches.

“Aesthetics are a big problem,” she said.

Additionally, the notion of placing the windmill platforms farther out — with little or no visibility on the horizon — hadn’t yet panned out, Lambertson said. The platform technology was uncertain at those deeper sea levels, she said, and studies suggested hundreds of windmills — perhaps 300 or so — would be needed, rows deep across the full 10-mile stretch of the southern shoreline.

Such projects worked well in the Netherlands, Lambertson noted, where people don’t just sit on the beach.

Further, Lambertson explained, her research had shown there would be little direct impact on local electric consumers. They might see a reduction in electric rates, but there would be no shutting down the Indian River Power Plant in the near future.

Wind-generated energy would go into the grid, supplementing the pollution-generating coal-fired plant but not enabling the powers-that-be to simply turn it off, even part of the time. Only 35 to 40 percent of the area’s power might be provided from wind sources, she said. The power plant would still be needed for backup power and peak use, as well as not being suitable for regular restarts to reduce pollution.

With that little payoff, the town might want to look into other alternative energy sources it could support, but it could expect little direct payoff in exchange for a major and permanent impact on its valued ocean views.

Mayor Gary Jayne and Councilman Jay Headman noted geothermal power and other increasingly common alternative sources, while Lambertson referenced potential tidal sources, as well.

But the council members were, by a majority, reluctant to take the step of deciding one way or the other on wind power, as proposed.

Jayne and Headman quickly agreed it was too soon to vote on the issue. “I’m not saying we wouldn’t take a stand,” Jayne said, “just not now.”

Cestone, however, said he was ready for the town to formally oppose the proposed project. “I’m totally against it,” he said. He cited adverse effects on property values in the town and for everyone on the Delaware coast.

“That’s our front yard,” Cestone emphasized, “not our back yard.” He noted that the Winergy officials had all but been sent out on a rail when they made their proposal in Ocean City. “If you could do it at 10 miles out, great, you won’t see it. At 3.5 miles, you can see them plain as day,” he added.

Headman said the town really had no idea how citizens feel about the issue — Cestone noted much opposition voiced to him, though. But Headman said more information for that decision would come as any such proposal came closer to reality.

“We’ll have a long time with notice of any public hearings,” he said. “This is not imminent.”

Councilman John Fields said he could argue both sides of the issue. “I haven’t really made up my mind,” he said. “We need alternative energy, but I don’t want to look at windmills.” He said the council knew how some citizens feel but some hadn’t taken any stance at all.

Cestone proposed a survey, but again the consensus was that the proposed project was a long way off, if it ever materialized, and the town would get more information as time progressed. It was too early for a survey, too.

“If we pop off now,” Jayne said, “we’re anti-environmentalists. … And this may never happen.”

With Cestone’s notable disagreement and Lambertson’s mild statement of need for a decision, the council put forward a consensus not to pursue a stance on the issue just yet. That done, they also recommended a less frequent timetable for updates on the issue from Lambertson — perhaps every three months instead of monthly.

Both recommendations were confirmed at the council’s May 12 monthly meeting.