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Delaware's star-crossed history with offshore wind power

Delaware Public Media

Two months ago, Maryland regulators signed off on the state’s first two offshore wind farms.

There’s a catch, though. One of them is directly off the coast of Delaware, filling the space that was once expected to be home to the nation’s first ocean-going wind project.

As Delaware Public Media’s James Dawson reports, that has some rethinking the future of wind power in the First State.

Picture yourself lying in the sand on a hot summer day, watching the waves from a southern Delaware beach; a cool breeze coming off the ocean cools you down while you’re working on your tan.

In a few years, that same breeze could be powering a planned wind farm several miles off Delaware’s coast – from Rehoboth south to Fenwick Island.

But instead of that electricity powering First State homes, the 120-megawatt Skipjack Offshore Energy project is expected to syphon that juice – and economic development money – into Maryland.

Depending on how close the turbines are to the coast, it could mean Delaware beachgoers get an eyeful while people further down the peninsula get an unobstructed ocean view.

“The people in Maryland are not paying for the full costs. They’re externalizing some of the costs of their wind power to the state of Delaware,” said Jeremy Firestone, who runs University of Delaware’s Center for Carbon-free Power Integration.

Since the federal government leases the Outer Continental Shelf that the wind farm will sit on, Delaware officials have little control over where turbines are built and where the power they produce goes.

But at one point, it appeared a much different and more First State friendly scenario would play out.

A decade ago, Bluewater Wind held the lease to that plot, promising to spend $238 million on construction and anchor 80 full time union jobs in Delaware for 25 years. And it had a power purchase agreement with Delmarva Power. 

Those who were on hand for that project’s unveiling, like Firestone, say the energy in the air was palpable.

“They were both excited by the prospects but quite clear that if loan guarantees weren’t there on the horizon and if there weren’t long-term tax credits that the project very likely would fail,” he said.

What no one knew was that the U.S. would go through one of the worst recessions in the nation’s history just a few months later.

Banks were skittish about investing in what would have been America’s first offshore wind project – so much so that top Delaware officials came back empty-handed even after years of trying to revive the deal.

Former DNREC Secretary Collin O’Mara says no one wanted to touch these kinds of projects – especially when long-term tax credits dried up along with demand for electricity.

“I blame it as much on market conditions and kind of the collapse of the global, at least the national financial sector as making it so much harder than it was when folks were negotiating this in [2007 and 2008],” O’Mara said.

He says he and former Gov. Jack Markell (D) traveled as far away as Germany to try and drum up business.

They also had “daily conversations” with NRG, which eventually bought out Bluewater Wind’s lease.

“We met with pretty much every major manufacturer, every major player in the industry in 2010, 2011, 2012 trying to put a deal together,” O’Mara said.

The two even tried to get the U.S. military to build its own sustainable power network along the eastern seaboard as a way to bring these kinds of jobs to the First State.

“We convened the meeting in Washington with the then secretary of the interior with South Carolina, Virginia, I think going up to New England because you’re really going to have to amass a big critical mass of demand in order for these companies to actually create the jobs locally,” Markell said during a recent interview.

Delaware’s inability to find a partner would open the door for Maryland when interest in offshore wind perked up.

Deepwater Wind, which oversees the Skipjack project, started building five turbines off the coast of Rhode Island.

Block Island became America’s first offshore wind farm when the blades started spinning earlier this year.

And Deepwater bought the lease to Delaware’s offshore wind area from NRG last December to develop Skipjack.

The plan, according to Clint Plummer, Deepwater’s vice president of development, is to eventually parcel out the remaining chunks of the Delaware Wind Area after Skipjack comes online in 2022.

Those projects may or may not hook into Delaware’s grid, but Plummer says the First State may play a crucial role in supporting these wind farms.

“It’s going to take building out a regional supply chain to support the development and construction of these projects and those supply chains tend to gravitate towards those places that are buying the electric power,” Plummer said.

Firestone agrees the potential is still there, even though Bluewater never panned out.

With offshore wind areas in New Jersey and Maryland so close, Firestone says Delaware could act as a strategic hub for constructing and maintaining these turbines.

“We may be able to play a bit over our weight, but we shouldn’t think that all the economic development, or the majority of the economic development benefits are going to come to Delaware, but we are well located and have a well located port to take advantage of.”

But in order to do that, he says planning needs to happen now from officials like Gov. John Carney (D).

In a statement, Carney’s office says he’s long supported offshore wind as a way to create jobs and reduce the effects of climate change.

The statement says he also looks forward to talks about future development, but didn’t note any current or ongoing plans.

While Delaware may not have won first place when it comes to offshore wind energy production, Firestone says there’s still room to catch up.

“We’ll always remember that Block Island was first, but ultimately, you want to be best.”

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