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Offshore wind farms in Maryland are nearing development, but how they affect marine life is the study at hand

Sep 01, 2015 10:39AM ● By Cate Reynolds

Wind Catching Water Watching

Offshore wind farms in Maryland are nearing development, but how they affect marine life is the study at hand

By Barbara Pash

Helen Bailey is looking for whales. She’s particularly interested in right whales, a highly endangered species, but humpback, blue, fin, and mink whales are welcome as well. All of them migrate through Maryland waters, as do dolphins and—through 2016—Bailey is tracking their movements.

Last year, Bailey, research assistant professor of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, in Solomons, Maryland, received a $2 million state/federal grant for the Maryland Acoustic Project, to study marine mammals off Ocean City.

Bailey’s study will not only determine the migration route of the animals but their geographic location as well. “We can track them as they move and if they stay in a place,” she says.

“We will have a much better picture of where they are and how much time they spend in Maryland waters,” Bailey says—an understanding that will help offshore wind farm developers pinpoint ocean floor areas with less marine mammal traffic.

“We will have continuous recordings for two years of where they are and how long they stay in a place. Construction noise is a concern so understanding the animals’ behavior will be helpful,” Bailey says of her study, a precursor to the offshore wind farm that, government officials and its developer say, will be operating in Maryland within the next five years.

In 2014, through a competitive bidding auction, U.S. Wind, Inc., headquartered in Baltimore, a subsidiary of the Italian renewable energy company Renexia, won the right from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior, to lease the ocean floor off Ocean City for a utility-scale wind farm.
Paul Rich, U.S. Wind’s director of project development, expects to begin construction in 2018 and have the wind farm operational by 2020. This timetable would make Maryland the first state in the country with such a facility.

At present, there are no codified regulations regarding offshore wind farms. However, two acts, the Environmental Protection Act of 2005 and the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, “guide” them, says Desray Reeb, of BOEM’s Office of Renewable Energy Programs.

“The acts are intended to protect the environment. They are not related to offshore wind farms, but developers have to comply with them if they propose to build offshore wind farms,” Reeb says.

That’s where Bailey’s study comes in. So do studies on birds and turtles that migrate through Maryland waters, as well as studies on the geophysical nature of the ocean floor.

“We are in the data collection stage,” says Rich. “The results of Bailey’s and the other studies will be merged into a common permit application to support our project.”

Bailey began her study in November 2014. She laid 14 acoustic devices, 10 for whales and four for dolphins and porpoises, on the ocean floor in a line from the shoreline to 45 miles off Ocean City.

“We expect the animals to travel north to south. The transit line will pick up any movement,” says Bailey, who used different types of devices for the whales and the dolphins.

“They have different sounds so we needed different devices. Whales are considered a higher priority than dolphins [which are not endangered] so we put out more for them,” she explains.

The devices, aka marine acoustic recording units, are being leased from Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., which is partnering with Bailey on the study. Cornell’s Bioacoustics Research Program developed them a decade ago and they’ve since been used for research around the world, from the Arctic to the African coast.

Bailey replaces the devices every six months to allow for data recorded by the previous devices to be analyzed on a continuous basis. While a few marine mammal acoustic studies have been done in other states—Bailey mentions New Jersey and Virginia—the Maryland study is the largest, longest, and most comprehensive.

“All the information we collect will be used for future East Coast wind energy development,” Bailey says of the final report, due June 2017. “This is a tremendous opportunity.”

Other states are exploring offshore wind farms. Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Virginia are frequently mentioned. Although projects are either stalled or small-scale.

In July, the company Deepwater Wind began installing the foundations for five wind turbines for a total 25 megawatts on Block Island, Rhode Island, the completion date to be determined. “It’s a demonstration project, not utility scale,” says Ross Tyler, director of the Maryland Energy Administration’s Offshore Wind Development Fund.

The Massachusetts Clean Energy Commission is looking into a wind farm off Nantucket. Virginia may soon begin development of a 12 megawatt offshore wind test project. Just this past May, public meetings were held in New York State for future offshore wind farms off Long Island.

In fact, U.S. Wind is having conversations with other states, Massachusetts among them, on the subject, says Rich. But it’s not by chance that U.S. Wind is planning to build and run its offshore wind farm in Maryland. He gave two reasons, one federal and the other state.

First, the Ocean City area is windy enough for a project of this type, and BOEM gave its approval for development.

Second, Maryland has enacted legislation, such as a guaranteed purchase agreement, that makes the project economically feasible. “We needed that follow-through on a practical level,” Rich says.

U.S. Wind plans to install 125 turbines, each producing 4 megawatts of power, for a total of 500 megawatts, enough to power 300,000 households, at a distance of more than 12 miles from shore. The estimated cost of the project is in the vicinity of $2 billion. Although its lease with BOEM doesn’t specify capacity, U.S. Wind calculates the project needs this megawatt amount to be cost-efficient.

U.S. Wind is working with two state agencies on the federal environmental requirements for the project. They are the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Maryland Energy Administration (MEA). Each has a role in the scenario leading to a working offshore wind farm.

Gwynne Schultz is deputy director of Chesapeake and Coastal Services at DNR. Since 2009, her unit has been working with experts to identify areas appropriate for an offshore wind farm. In addition, her unit has been helping with the needed site studies such as Bailey’s marine mammal study.

“Where there are gaps in the data, I find funding sources and scientists,” Schultz says. “By getting the information ahead of time, the developer doesn’t have to spend the money to do so.”

Ross Tyler talks about the state’s renewable energy portfolio: 20 percent of Maryland’s energy usage must come from renewable sources like wind and solar by 2022. The state has a formula for doing so, including requiring public utilities to buy up to two percent of their power from wind.

State law is guaranteeing a purchase agreement with U.S. Wind of $190 per megawatt hour produced for 20 years, although the ultimate cost to rate-payers is unknown.

State law is also allowing the developer to apply to the Maryland Public Service Commission for offshore renewal energy credits, which can be sold on the energy market.

To meet the renewable energy portfolio, “there are a few utility-scale solar installations in Maryland but we don’t have the space [for more] and we’re not a desert. Onshore wind farms are a proven technology and there are offshore wind farms in Europe,” says Tyler, who has been in consultation with Denmark and Great Britain throughout the state’s offshore wind quest.

“In Maryland, we are working to reduce risk and make an offshore wind farm as viable as possible,” Tyler says. “It’s as much of a done deal as it’s ever going to be.”