Pterodactyls. Giant airplane propellers in the sky. Graceful, gliding birds. Blots on the verdant landscape.
Among residents of rural Garrett County, the 28 wind turbines now pin-wheeling atop Backbone Mountain conjure many images — some nicer than others. But whatever one's perception, the massive windmills are here to stay. And they demand attention.
Constellation Energy assembled several dozen guests next to one of the behemoths — about the size of a 40-story building — on Tuesday for a ribbon-cutting for Maryland's first commercial wind farm, even though the turbines started generating electricity months ago.
"Sit back, relax and enjoy the view of our wind park," Constellation's project manager Don Shilobod said to the group as they gazed at a vista dominated by eight of the light gray turbines looming over the treetops.
They gathered next to Tower 46, which was turned off for the event because of the racket normally produced by its cooling fan.
But even turbines a couple of football fields away hummed with a sound similar to that of traffic whizzing by on a distant highway — a combination of the blades whipping the air at speeds reaching 170 miles per hour at their tips, the cooling fan's noise, and the whir of the gear box adjusting the blades' position as wind conditions change.
To supporters, it's the sound of much-needed progress on the road to greater energy independence. The turbine project, a decade in the making, marks Maryland's somewhat belated entry into the business of harnessing the blowing breeze for power generation.
The 28 turbines on Backbone Mountain can produce enough power for 23,000 homes, Constellation says. That's a relatively small amount considering it would require 17 similarly sized wind farms — with nearly 500 turbines — to produce as much power as the coal-fired Brandon Shores plant in Anne Arundel County.
"The windmills are here … whether you like them or don't like them," Del. Wendell Beitzel, a Garrett County Republican, told the audience, which included local officials, property owners and Constellation representatives. "We're going to live with them."
Beitzel called wind power one piece of the energy puzzle, along with the copious amounts of coal and natural gas still to be extracted from the ground in Western Maryland.
Later, Beitzel said the community around Oakland was roughly divided on the wind project. Residents in town and second-home owners are generally opposed, he said, seeing the turbines as a visual scar. But he said farmers and other land owners generally support it, partly because several have signed leases with Baltimore-based Constellation for use of their land.
Gov. Martin O'Malley's office sent a representative to praise the project. Kevin Hughes, O'Malley's deputy legislative officer, said the governor could not attend because he was in Washington speaking at a conference on competing with China.
Hughes said O'Malley could point to the wind project as "Exhibit No. 1 on how the United States can win the clean energy race."
The O'Malley administration is also pursuing a plan for wind turbines off the Atlantic coast. This month, federal officials outlined an area of 94 square nautical miles where turbines might be placed, though the environmental impact is still being studied. State officials have talked about developing enough offshore turbines to generate 400 to 600 megawatts of power; the Backbone Mountain project, by comparison, generates about 70 megawatts.
Constellation vice president Dale Linaweaver acknowledged that no energy source pleases everyone. But in a common refrain, he called the power being generated on the mountain "an important part of the energy mix."
Linaweaver, who grew up in West Virginia and skied at Wisp as a boy, noted that the $140 million project injected upward of $10 million into the local economy. Constellation said the project provided 150 construction jobs over the past year.
Linaweaver also said the company is "diligently" working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to obtain an "incidental take permit" that would allow the turbines to kill, or "take," a certain number of endangered Indiana bats that migrate through the region.
The permit, if granted, would be very limited, he said: It would allow only 25 Indiana bats to be killed over 20 years. Asked later if any bats had been killed in the past six months, Linaweaver said some bats had died but none was an endangered kind.
Critics of the project say they fear the turbines will damage wildlife, water resources and scenic views. Environmental groups and several residents have warned that the turbines are likely to harm or harass the federally protected Indiana bats along with Virginia big-eared bats.
The handful of critics who gathered Tuesday along the road leading to the turbines said they had a pending federal lawsuit that claims the project has a negative impact on bats.
"Stop Killing Bats," read one sign displayed by the protesters. Their biggest sign, draped over the road by a construction vehicle, declared, "Constellation is a bad neighbor!!"
The banner was placed there by Eric Robison, a contractor who claims construction workers blocked his driveway as intimidation after he complained about problems with the turbine project, including insufficient erosion control that led to a state-ordered construction halt in 2010. A Constellation spokesman, Kevin Thornton, rejected Robison's claims.
Robison was joined by Jeffery Conner, an accountant and farmer who says wind energy does not justify the tax incentives offered for such projects. Conner, who lives 25 miles away, said he can clearly see the turbines from his home — an unwelcome sight. Each turbine consists of a 262-foot tower with a diameter of roughly 20 feet. When one of the three massive blades points upward, the tip is 415 above the ground.
"I have a million-dollar view on my farm," Conner said. "Now all you see is blinking lights at night. That's the most disturbing part."
But to others, the view is just fine.
Beitzel said he can see six turbines from his front porch 15 miles away. "I personally don't find them offensive," he said. "It's unique, almost like an airplane propeller setting up there."
Bill and Pauline Kalwa have leased part of their 254-acre property to Constellation, which acquired the project last year from a California-based company, for the site of one turbine. The couple, whose primary residence is in White Marsh, also enthusiastically agreed to set aside 30 acres for an endangered mouse-like rodent called the rock vole.
The Kalwas believe wind power has great promise as a renewable energy source, and they appreciate the monthly royalty check from Constellation. Both also happen to be quite fond of the turbines' alien appearance.
Pauline Kalwa said they remind her of pterodactyls — in a good way. And her husband gushes when talking about the mesmerizing machines.
"I could sit here and stare at them all day," he said. To him they call to mind "big birds gliding in the breeze." He added, "You probably think I'm nuts."