For years, environmental groups have viewed electricity-producing wind farms with a touch of reverence: energy from the natural rhythms of the air, without the need for fossil fuels or polluting greenhouse gases.
But questions about the risk, cost and environmental impact of offshore wind threaten to slow what some call a headlong state rush to approve a $1.6 billion, 150-turbine wind farm off Rehoboth Beach, along with one of two on-land, backup natural gas-powered generating plants.
Concerns about Bluewater Wind LLC’s state-endorsed venture range from the as-yet unexamined risks to birds and aquatic life to the cost to ratepayers and the public at large. Some fear that the massive project could burden Delmarva Power customers with needlessly higher rates while also discouraging development of better and cheaper alternative energy solutions.
Environmental risks remain largely unstudied in the proposed wind-farm area, situated amid flyways for migrating birds and habitat for a variety of aquatic life.
Also unclear are the consequences of potentially closing off or restricting access to a 30-square-mile section of ocean heavily trafficked by shipping and recreational boaters, an area adjacent to Delaware’s beaches.
“As an environmentalist, I can’t support bypassing a robust permitting process,” said Alan Muller, who directs the environmental group Green Delaware. “I think this is going to be a problem for a lot of groups that have hung their hats on wind. Are they going to turn around and say, ‘Let’s shove this through,’ without considering the implications?”
Bluewater said it has satisfied environmental concerns.
“We have worked with our expert environmentalists, ornithologists, marine specialists. We are very comfortable that, whatever state law or federal law is to be applied, we can meet them,” said Bluewater spokesman Jim Lanard.
Bluewater plans to apply for approval for a temporary offshore study platform in the proposed wind farm area in the spring, Lanard said. The temporary platform would serve as a base for the company’s first wind studies at turbine heights, as well as other weather studies and a two-year review of both bird and marine habitats, he said.
Few details are available about the ultimate cost to ratepayers, however, if the Public Service Commission requires Delmarva Power to sign a 25-year contract with Bluewater and a separate contract for a natural gas plant to serve as a backup.
The latest available wholesale figures for Bluewater’s offer have been higher than the published rates for on-land wind farms or natural gas plants. PSC analysts have yet to estimate the additional cost to ratepayers during interruptions or downturns in Bluewater’s weather-dependent operations, problems that would at times force Delmarva to buy from other electricity producers when market prices are highest.
The cost issues have divided the state’s environmental community along with some state lawmakers who favor conservation and smaller-scale additions to electricity supplies.
Delaware’s Public Advocate last week warned that the PSC plan has “several shortcomings” that could mean greater risks and costs for consumers.
Wilmington resident Melissa Epstein has no such qualms.
“I think a lot of people who don’t want this to happen are people more in the upper echelon, who don’t want to see it in the distance from their million-dollar homes,” Epstein said. “I think wind is a good idea.”