In a duel of sorts between two of Maryland's top Democrats, U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer went to Annapolis Tuesday to press for legislation opposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley that Southern Maryland officials insist is needed to protect their region's prized naval air base from an Eastern Shore wind energy project.
Hoyer, who represents Southern Maryland in Congress, said he was making his first appearance before a legislative committee since leaving the General Assembly for Washington in the 1970s. He said he did so because he fears giant wind turbines proposed in Somerset County could jeopardize the future of Naval Air Station Patuxent River, which supporters say is an economic engine not only for the region but for the entire state.
"I want wind energy in this state and in this country," Hoyer said. "But not at the expense of undermining the viability and effectiveness" of the St. Mary's County base, where a unique radar system is used to test the stealth capability of aircraft.
Hoyer and other Southern Maryland officials warned the Senate Finance Committee that the turbines could interfere with the radar and lead to the testing being transferred — along with the thousands of jobs associated with it — to an air base in California or elsewhere.
But the Texas-based developer of the $200 million Somerset wind project says it has reached an agreement in principle with the Navy to turn off the 25 turbines whenever radar tests are to be run. And some current and retired military officials have said that would work.
A state Senate committee is considering a bill passed by the House, which would for 15 months effectively block commercial wind development within 56 miles of the air base — a zone stretching across the Chesapeake Bay to encompass the proposed Great Bay wind project on the western edge of Somerset. The developer, Pioneer Green, has warned that the delay would kill the project.
Supporters of the bill contend that the wind project needs to be delayed pending completion of a $2 million study looking at ways to remedy a turbine's impact on the radar system.
O'Malley didn't appear in person to oppose the bill, but Abigail Hopper, his energy adviser and director of the Maryland Energy Administration, told lawmakers the governor considered the legislation both unnecessary and potentially harmful to the state's efforts to woo more renewable energy projects.
"The governor has no desire to harm Pax River," Hopper said, using the base's nickname, but argued it's not "an either-or-choice." She pointed out there are both federal and state laws guaranteeing that the Navy can impose conditions on or even block approval of any wind project it believes would impair or degrade operations of one of its facilities.
Moreover, she said, such a broad moratorium could make it harder for the state to achieve a goal set at O'Malley's urging of getting 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2022.
"You will create a reputation across the country that Maryland is not open for clean energy development," she said.
Adam Cohen, vice president and founder of Pioneer Green, said the company has already invested nearly $4 million in leasing land and planning for its 25 turbines. And he said the company has worked out a deal with Navy officials to turn off its turbines whenever the base needs to run radar tests, so there would be no interference.
That deal has not been signed by all the necessary officials, however. Hoyer said he had asked the Navy to hold off pending completion of the study.
The congressman suggested the wind project is being foisted on Pax River by an Obama administration committed to promoting renewable energy. He suggested turning off the turbines was no remedy because it might tip off the nation's adversaries when the Navy was conducting classified radar tests.
Moreover, Hoyer and other base supporters said unspecified "customers" of Patuxent River — military aircraft programs, foreign governments and private contractors conducting testing there — object to the agreement and could take their business elsewhere. Letting the wind project go forward now under that arrangement could weaken Maryland's ability to retain all the operations and jobs at Pax River the next time the Pentagon orders a realignment of bases nationwide, they warned.
Cohen countered that wind turbines generally operate only about 30 percent of the time anyway, so it would be hard to divine when testing was being done. And Pam Kasemeyer, the company's lobbyist, said Patuxent already signals publicly — by a balloon launch — when it is about to conduct radar tests.
The developer also pointed to a statement from a former director of the Pentagon agency that referees such disputes over energy projects near military bases, who called the concerns of Patuxent River supporters "misplaced." Turning off the turbines would remove any interference, said David Belote, a retired Air Force colonel. He also said there was little prospect of the Navy or its customers abandoning Patuxent River because the costs of moving the sophisticated radar system elsewhere would be "astronomical."
The Department of Defense has issued varying statements about the deal. When first asked about it last month by The Baltimore Sun, a Pentagon spokesman said Pioneer Green's agreement to turn off its turbines "will provide the periodic curtailment of operations required by the Navy."
More recently, a different spokesman, Navy Lt. Greg D. Raelson, said that the agreement "still requires revisions and has not been approved by the Navy." He declined to elaborate.
The only Navy representative to speak at the hearing told lawmakers that for security reasons he could not discuss what issues the base may still have with turning off the turbines.
Outside the hearing room, though, Gary Kessler, executive director of the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division, said the Navy's primary concern with the agreement is not technical but legal. Officials want to ensure that it is legally enforceable. Unless some technical fix is found, he said, base officials do worry how they could manage if more such projects are proposed on the lower Shore.
The developer's lobbyist and O'Malley's energy adviser both suggested a compromise — impose the moratorium, but allow any project with a signed agreement with the Navy to proceed.
Some members of the Finance Committee, particularly those with military background or with a military base in their district, indicated they side with the Southern Marylanders. But Sen. Allan Kittleman, a Howard County Republican, said he was torn.
"We talk about having these renewable energy goals," he said. If much of the state is off-limits to protect Patuxent River, he said, "I'm at a loss how we're going to get to these goals. This is really tough."
An earlier version of this story misstated Gary Kessler's name. The Sun regrets the error.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun