Ocean City, Md., officials and Skipjack Offshore Energy jousted for two days during recent evidentiary hearings before the Maryland Public Service Commission. At stake is whether Skipjack can proceed with its operations, after it changed its wind turbine selection.
“There is nothing that currently prevents Skipjack from building the turbines as close to Ocean City as their lease area allows,” attorney Timothy Maloney, of Joseph, Greenwald & Laake, said on the Town of Ocean City’s behalf. “We need viewshed protection and we need certainty.”
The June 4-5 evidentiary hearing comes after Skipjack Offshore Energy, a subsidiary of Danish company Ørsted, last summer notified the commission it would be changing its original turbine selection from the Siemens 8-megawatt turbines to the GE Haliad-X 12-megawatt turbines.
The 12-megawatt turbines are 853 feet in height — three times taller than the tallest building in Ocean City.
Skipjack said it switched to the larger turbines because they are more efficient at producing energy in low to mid-wind conditions.
Ocean City officials and business leaders have said they believe the turbines would violate the city’s coastline aesthetic, or viewshed, which they have said would cause irreparable harm to the local tourism industry.
Skipjack, while agreeing the turbines would be visible, contends that the project’s negative impact on tourism, if any, would be more of a wash, as some studies have shown interest in the project could drive up tourism.
Jens Hieronymus Gravgaard, program development director for the Mid-Atlantic program for Ørsted North America Inc., testified to the commission that the turbines would be located, at their closest, approximately 22.7 miles from the coast.
The switch to the taller turbines also would reduce the number of towers necessary from 15 to 12 or fewer, Gravgaard said.
While the added distance is somewhat canceled out by the increase in height — roughly 33 percent — the reduced number, flexible spacing and the perpendicular layout of turbines would prove beneficial in preserving coastline views, he said.
The project “occupies a smaller percent of the horizon,” Gravgaard said.
However, Maloney found issue with the lack of clear and definitive planning on Skipjack’s part.
When Maloney asked whether the turbines could be pushed farther out than 22.7 miles, Gravgaard replied, “Not much.” He later pointed out that the company’s operations would be restricted to its lease area, which ends at the 30-mile mark.
Maloney also argued that nothing legally prevented Skipjack from moving its turbines closer to shore or adding more than 12, noting how the company had deviated from its initial plans by switching to the larger turbines.
“Formally, you could say this is correct, but this is why we are stating our intentions here,” Gravgaard said. He then said something that piqued Maloney’s interest.
“I have to state one thing here,” Gravgaard said. “That is — there is a remainder of that lease area that represents a value to Ørsted, and if we sterilize that by preventing us from utilizing the rest, our company would suffer a tremendous loss in value.”
“What do you mean?” Maloney said.
“There’s an ongoing solicitation here with the State of Maryland where, of course, it could be explored whether you could add more turbines to this lease area, for example, in the Garden State wind area,” Gravgaard said.
“So one of the reasons why you don’t want to go out farther, as permitted under the lease area, is because you want to keep that in reserve for further wind approvals from the State of Maryland?” Maloney asked.
Gravgaard said moving the turbines farther out would require longer cables and cost more money, but Maloney brought Gravgaard back to the lease apparently being held in reserve.
“We have the full lease area, and for future solicitations we would like to be able to place turbines all over the lease area potentially,” Gravgaard said. “If we receive a ruling that we cannot place turbines closer than a certain distance, that would harm the company.”
Maloney went on to ask whether anything, such as navigational blockage, geographical obstacles or existing lease holders, prevented Skipjack from asking to extend its outer lease area, but Gravgaard said he was not in the position to form a qualified opinion.
Another issue Maloney tackled were the lights on turbines that are necessary for preventing aircrafts and ships from crashing into the towers.
Gravgaard said Skipjack was looking into obtaining a motion-activated lighting device, but the technology had yet to receive approval for use in the United States, which failed to impress Maloney.
Following Gravgaard was Gordon Perkins, senior project manager and visualization specialist for Environmental Design & Research, Landscape Architecture, Engineering & Environmental Services, DPC (EDR).
Maloney immediately pointed out to the commission that Perkins had never qualified as an expert for an offshore wind project.
“I recognize that the witness is not qualified as an expert witness for purposes of wind farms, either offshore or onshore at this point,” PSC Chairman Jason Stanek said. “Having reviewed his background and experience with visual simulations, I find that the witness is qualified to provide his opinion; therefore we will treat him as an expert witness.”
During his cross-examination, Maloney challenged Perkins’ visual simulations, noting that Perkins had only taken a photo on one day, and then remodeled it to represent accurate weather and lighting conditions for other days.
Although Perkins argued that the visual simulations were valid because he had used 3D modeling technology and scientific methodology to recreate the appropriate conditions, Maloney insisted that the visual exhibits were not valid because Perkins had not been physically present on the beach.
He also criticized Perkins for not creating a simulation for sunrise and sunset conditions, which were the most important to city officials.
“The fact is you simply, because you have graphic 3D skills, created in your mind and on this photograph what you think the beach would have looked like on Aug. 18, 2018, without ever taking a photograph there, being present there or really knowing exactly this does look like,” Maloney said. “You just out of whole cloth created your visual image of what things would look like Aug. 18, 2018.”
“As I stated before,” Perkins said. “There are model parameters that we entered into this to reasonably predict a condition that could occur during this time of day on this date and future dates, for that matter. And it’s not just my opinion that this is a reasonable representation, I think anyone looking at this could surmise this condition can occur on Ocean City beach.”
Ocean City witness Robert Sullivan, an environmental scientist, and visual impact and mitigation expert, also criticized Perkins’ “overreliance” on visual simulations.
“Simulations that are based on photographs … show elements in the simulations to be lower in contrast than they are in reality,” Sullivan testified. “I have made thousands of observations of energy facilities in the field, including more than a thousand documented observations of wind-energy facilities, and I have observed and documented that photographs of facilities always have less contrast and sharpness than the facilities show when viewed in the field.”
Sullivan did not visit Ocean City, and based his testimony on Google maps, photos and accounts from Mayor Rick Meehan and City Engineer Terry McGean.
Part of Sullivan’s argument was that visual simulations fail to replicate blade motion and rapidly changing light, which can alter visibility dramatically.
“While the visual simulations included with Mr. Perkin’s direct testimony are reasonably accurate depictions of the view of the Skipjack Project under lighting conditions that might sometimes occur and at a time when there was no wind, these visual simulations underrepresent the visibility of the Skipjack Project and do not show the full impact of the Skipjack Project,” he said.
Sullivan did admit, however, that the Skipjack Project, by itself, would not cause significant visual impact.
Maloney also criticized Skipjack’s failure to communicate and collaborate with the resort’s government, although Skipjack denied that accusation.
Meehan reiterated during the hearing that the Town of Ocean City had no problem with wind energy or the jobs the project would create, as long as turbines were pushed farther offshore.
“We would like to be a good partner, and have it so that, in fact, [wind turbines] can be built farther out off our coast not to jeopardize our tourism industry,” Meehan said.
The town and Skipjack will have 40 days to file briefs, to be no longer than 40 pages, to the commission.
To watch the videos of the hearing, visit https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCMeaC-x27Ioq71Bqwr858Hw.