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UD study proposes new port to meet strong demand from offshore wind industry

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Delaware Public Media
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Delaware’s history with wind power has been less than stellar.

But there may yet be a way for the First State to get in the wind game.

Delaware Public Media contributor Jon Hurdle reports a recent Univ. of Delaware charts a path forward.

Delaware shelved the idea of buying electricity from offshore wind turbines two years ago but now advocates are saying the time is right to build a port near Delaware City to service an industry that is set for strong growth over the next decade and beyond.

A new report from the University of Delaware identifies a mostly vacant site of up to 831 acres just north of the Delaware City Refinery as the right place to store, assemble and ship components for the many offshore wind farms that other Northeastern states – but not Delaware – have committed to buying power from.

Commitments by at least seven states to buy at least 26 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind power in the next 35 years, and a current shortage on the Atlantic coast of ports that will be able to service the industry, together represent a golden opportunity for investors to build a facility that could meet the demand, argued Willett Kempton, a UD professor who oversaw the Feasibility Assessment for an Offshore Wind Marshalling Port in the Delaware Bay.

The report also endorses a site in Salem County, New Jersey that was named in June by that state’s Governor, Phil Murphy, to service the industry at a time when New Jersey has committed to buying 7.5 GW of offshore wind power by 2035. The New Jersey port, on land owned by the utility PSEG, is due to begin construction in 2021.

Together, the two sites would establish the Delaware Bay as the leading mid-Atlantic center for servicing the industry, and would boost the economy of both states, advocates say.

And both ports would be needed to meet the anticipated demand for offshore wind power over the next 15 years or so, Kempton said.

“Theoretically, the port is built by an investor who says: ‘There’s going to be a ton of demand for this, and that port in New Jersey isn’t going to be big enough for this whole industry. So I’m going to invest in something that’s going to be ready about three years after the New Jersey thing and when they can’t accommodate the capacity, we’ll do it,’” he said, in an interview.

Kempton said the projected need for the wind ports is based on actual commitments by states rather than expressions of intent. “This is not: ‘Some governor said I think we’ll do it,’” he said. “These are commitments by state governments. What we’ve done is translated that back into port requirements.”

The American Wind Energy Association, a trade group, declined to comment on the specific proposals in the UD report, but said the biggest economic benefits will go to states that seize the opportunity to service an industry that is poised for strong growth.

“Offshore wind is about to set sail in the U.S. in a big way, boosting economies up and down the East Coast as states carve out their own pieces of the 83,000 jobs and $25 billion in annual economic activity that this brand new energy industry is set to deliver within a decade,” said Laura Morton, the association’s Senior Director for Offshore Policy and Regulatory Affairs.

“Coastal states and project developers are investing heavily in the infrastructure needed to support the over 27,000 MW (27 GW) of wind capacity in the current offshore pipeline, and the states that take a leadership role in this effort will most readily capture the jobs and economic activity associated with offshore wind manufacturing, assembly, and staging,” she said in a statement.

According to the UD report, eight Atlantic states have committed, through legislation, regulation or executive order, to buying more than 8 GW, or about eight times the output of a modern nuclear power station, of offshore wind power by 2026.

The report said wind ports need to be big enough to accommodate very large wind turbine components such as blades that are typically about 250 feet long, and towers that can be more than 500 feet high. Port sites also need to have a deep enough draft to take ocean-going ships; a strong enough base to support very heavy equipment, and good road and rail links from inland areas.

The Delaware site checked all the boxes but its advantages could still be overshadowed by the state’s lack of a commitment to buying offshore wind power, unlike every other coastal state in the region, the report said.

“The greatest drawback for the Delaware site is Delaware’s current lack of wind energy commitment in the political realm,” the 151-page report said. “Lack of support from the state may push wind developers to pursue an investment in a state with a further commitment. ”

Two years ago, an offshore wind working group set up by Gov. John Carney recommended that Delaware should not immediately agree to buy power from a wind farm approved by Maryland to operate off Rehoboth Beach.

But the panel urged the administration to consider options including a large-scale purchase of offshore wind power, and waiting until developers propose more projects off the mid-Atlantic coast.

Carney’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the wind port proposal.

The site identified by the UD report is the former location of a chemical plant run by Occidental Chemical, which still owns the land. The property is one of 14 named in a 2017 amendment to the Coastal Zone Act, a 1971 law that was designed to protect Delaware’s natural environment by banning new heavy industry in a coastal strip running most of the length of the state.

The amendment allows industrial development to resume on the 14 sites if the developers meet certain conditions, including convincing regulators that the site can survive sea-level rise in coming decades. Although a wind port on the Occidental site wouldn’t meet the definition of heavy industry, it would still need a CZA permit because it would represent a change of use, the UD report said.

Even though Delaware lacks a power-purchase agreement for offshore wind, that shouldn’t prevent a wind port being built, argued Rep. Ed Osienski (D-Newark), the lead sponsor of the law that reopened the Coastal Zone three years ago.

“I don't think that would necessarily be a deal breaker for consideration by the industry to locate a wind port at a site that meets their logistical and financial needs,” Osienski said.

Reusing the Occidental site for a wind port would be consistent with the aim of the updated law to redevelop coastal sites and boost the state’s economy while protecting the natural environment, he said.

“My Costal Zone Conversion Permit legislation created a more viable opportunity for responsible companies to remediate and redevelop some of these unused brownfields and turn them into potential economic engines for our state,” he said.

Among the requirements for redeveloping Coastal Zone site is to plan for sea-level rise, which any wind port developer would have to incorporate. But UD’s Kempton played down those concerns at the Occidental site, saying that, after some grading, the site would be “above sea-level rise concerns for the rest of the century.”

The UD team considered other sites along the Delaware shore but concluded that they were not feasible because they would conflict with nature preserves, or could be increasingly exposed to storms the closer they got to the Atlantic Ocean in southern Delaware.

Further north, the Port of Wilmington was rejected because it’s north of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, and that would prevent ships – which carry turbine blades some 300 feet long vertically – from passing under the bridge. The blades would also have been too tall to pass under a power line that stretches across the bay from the Salem nuclear plant to Delaware.

On the Atlantic coast of New Jersey, it’s hard to find a piece of undeveloped land that’s big enough for a wind port, and so the Delaware Bay emerged as the most viable place to service the industry, Kempton said.

So the Delaware and New Jersey sites are both big enough and well-positioned enough to serve the anticipated demand, the report said.

“Market demand is expected to exceed the service abilities of comparable marshalling ports (both existing and proposed), it said. “Both the NJ and DE sites analyzed have the potential for expansion to better match the projected market.”