Maryland is vying to be one of the East Coast’s most important hubs for offshore wind energy, but there’s still the unknown about how massive wind farms will affect marine life just off the state’s shore.
That’s why Baltimore-based US Wind, one of the companies planning to build wind turbines off the coast of Ocean City in the next decade, is funding research into how its wind farms will affect Maryland’s marine mammals, fish and birds, in partnership with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
The center will conduct three studies into how wind farms will impact the surrounding ecosystem. US Wind is contributing $11 million in funding to the projects.
The project will be led by co-principal investigators David Secor and Helen Bailey, both of whom are professors at UMCES. The duo initially began looking into the 80,000 acres of ocean leased by US Wind several years ago and have been working directly with US Wind to identify a course of study for around two years, Secor said.
The research will include three projects. One is an eight-year investigation into the effects of the wind turbines on the area’s black sea bass population, looking into the fish’s aggregation behaviors before, during and after the turbines are constructed.
According to Secor, studies on other offshore wind facilities in the United States have shown that the structures can create a reef-like effect, which can encourage more fish to gather in the area.
The study aims to better understand how commercial and recreational fisheries in nearby Ocean City will be impacted by the construction of US Wind’s two wind farm projects — MarWin, a facility that is eventually expected to include around 20 wind turbines and produce 270 megawatts of wind energy, and MomentumWind, which is expected to include around 55 turbines and produce 808.5 megawatts of energy.
Plus, Secor said, it’s a rare opportunity to study an ecosystem so far out into the ocean.
“All of this is of general science interest because these shelf areas are far enough offshore that we don’t know a lot about them,” he said. US Wind’s lease area is approximately 17 miles off the coast of Ocean City.
The project will be completed over the course of eight years. In addition to identifying whether the addition of the turbines causes more or fewer fish to aggregate, Secor said, the project will explore how far out into the ocean that effect will reach. Will the number of fish increase within a few yards of the wind farms, or will it increase throughout the surrounding area?
The two other projects will involve tracking the animals, including baleen whales, that move in and out of US Wind’s lease area, gathering information about when and where certain creatures pass through the area.
“This is very, very useful to developers in terms of trying to find times that are less likely to impact whales, times for construction, times for surveys,” Secor said.
The project to look specifically at whale movement in the area is already underway, utilizing technology that notifies the researchers in, essentially, real time of any whales passing by a buoy placed on the eastern edge of US Wind’s lease zone.
In a statement, US Wind’s CEO Jeff Grybowski celebrated the company’s partnership with UMCES.
“As US Wind works to develop offshore wind off Maryland’s coast, it’s imperative that we do so responsibly,” he said. “We’re thrilled to be partnering with UMCES on industry-leading environmental research that will enhance protections for marine life as we develop this clean energy resource for the region.”
UMCES’s research will supplement US Wind’s research related to the potential environmental impacts of its wind farm, such as a survey the company is conducting, through contractor Normandeau Associates, to identify birds that may be displaced by the installation of MarWin’s turbines.