By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 7, 2007
REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. -- Two hundred towering windmills, each so tall that its blades would loom over the U.S. Capitol Dome, could be built in the Atlantic Ocean near one of Washingtonians' favorite beach retreats, under a plan being considered in Delaware.
The plan, which could create the first wind "farm" in waters along the East Coast, envisions a thicket of turbines offshore of either Rehoboth Beach or Bethany Beach, Del. As the blades are spun by ocean winds, designers say, the wind farm could provide enough power every year for 130,000 homes.
The wind farm is one competitor in an unusual kind of power-plant bake-off: Delaware officials are also considering plants that would burn coal or natural gas as they seek ways to generate more electricity. A preliminary decision could be made tomorrow.
So far, the debate over the windmills has turned on global questions about climate change and very local concerns about the impact on the ocean view. But from the beach, the wind farm's backers say, the giant turbines would look smaller than a boardwalk french fry.
"Toothpicks, with maybe little pinwheels on the top," said Jim Lanard, a spokesman for the company proposing the windmills, describing how they would look on the horizon more than six miles offshore. "You probably wouldn't be able to tell what they are."
Wind farms have sprouted all over the United States in the past decade. There are about 150, from California to the West Virginia highlands. But, so far, they have sprouted only on land.
Proposals to put turbines in the water have come less far -- hung up, in some cases, by concerns that they will harm birds, disrupt shipping or become a blight on ocean vistas. One company that had planned wind farms off the Maryland and Virginia coasts, New York-based Winergy Power, says it has put those projects on hold while the federal government works on rules for issuing permits.
In Delaware, though, industry analysts say the debate has been different. Instead of wind-farm-vs.-no-wind-farm, here the debate has been windmills, which would not produce the kinds of greenhouse gases blamed for climate change, versus fossil-fuel plants, which would.
"When you say, 'Would you rather have a wind farm or would you rather have a coal plant?,' I think having the choice makes people say, 'Gee, the wind farm really is the lesser of the evils,' " said Walt Musial, a wind-energy specialist at the U.S. government's National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.
The debate over power here began last year, after electricity prices spiked. Delaware legislators decided the answer was to produce more power, and they asked for proposals to build a new plant.
One of the plans they received was for a natural-gas plant. Another proposed to burn coal using a method that removes some of the greenhouse gases and other air pollutants.
And then there is the wind farm, which backers say could be completed by 2012. It is proposed by a New Jersey company called Bluewater Wind, which has one land-based wind farm in Montana but has not built an offshore farm anywhere. The proposal calls for driving the turbines into the sea floor, with their poles extending 263 feet into the air. At the top would be three blades, each 150 feet long. When one points directly overhead, it will reach higher than the Capitol or the Statue of Liberty's torch.
When the blades spin, the company says, they will drive a generator, producing power that will run through undersea cables to land.
"The fuel is free" because it's only moving air, said Peter Mandelstam, Bluewater Wind's president, making his case Wednesday during a chamber of commerce breakfast in Lewes, Del.
Mandelstam also stressed that the wind farm would not contribute to climate change, which is blamed for rising sea levels in Delaware and elsewhere. At times, the appeal was less than subtle.
"A third of Delaware will be underwater by 2100," Mandelstam said, citing University of Delaware research. "And we take that very seriously."
Representatives from the coal and gas bids responded that the wind farm would prove an unreliable source of energy, potentially forcing the state to buy power from elsewhere.
"Wind is intermittent. It doesn't blow all the time," said Raymond Long of NRG Energy, which proposed the coal plant. He told the crowd there would be no such problems with coal, because the United States has an abundant supply: "We're essentially the Saudi Arabia of coal."
At a meeting tomorrow in Dover, Delaware officials are expected to give preliminary approval to one of the proposals. They could also choose none of them or a combination. State staff members have recommended a combination of a smaller wind farm and a gas plant that would kick in when the wind doesn't blow.
And even if wind wins tomorrow, serious obstacles will remain. The biggest one might be Delmarva Power, the utility here, which would need to agree to buy electricity from the wind farm. It has come out publicly against all three proposals, saying none of them is cost-effective.
For now, though, the wind farm seems to have generated considerable public support here -- in many cases, because of climate-change concerns. The Delaware Audubon Society has said it believes the windmills can be built in a way that will not pose a serious danger to birds.
"This is an opportunity for our motto to be used," said Ronald Schaeffer, who consults with homeowners and businesses interested in putting up solar panels. He was at the Lewes breakfast. "We are 'The First State,' and we ought to be the first to use renewable energy on a major basis."
Things are a little more complicated, though, in Rehoboth Beach. In an interview along the nearly deserted boardwalk, restaurant worker Stacy Neider said she was concerned that the distant windmills might drive tourists away.
"If there's a lot of them sitting out there, some people might consider it an eyesore," said Neider, working behind the counter at Beach Luncheon.
But others said they could see a brighter side: What if the windmills actually brought more tourists, curious to look at the turbines or to steer a sailboat among them?
And anyway, T-shirt shop worker Barbara Boyer said, it's not like Rehoboth in the summertime is a peaceful, pristine experience .
"The ocean's here," Boyer said, which means the tourists will come. "They put up with crowds, they put up with all the things they have to [to] be here. I can't believe they'd stay away because of a bunch of little windmills."