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Bill to protect Pax River could scuttle Eastern Shore wind project

Legislation that could kill a $200 million wind energy project on the Eastern Shore is moving through the General Assembly, pushed by Southern Maryland lawmakers who contend the 600-foot tall turbines threaten their region's most important job generator, Naval Air Station Patuxent River.

But renewable-energy advocates are crying foul. They point out that the project's developer already has reached a deal with the Navy to curtail the turbines' operations so they wouldn't affect the air base. And they say the measure would derail a project that would bring much-needed revenue to one of Maryland's poorest counties and could cripple the state's efforts to get more electricity from wind.

It's a clash that pits one region of the state against another— and puts some of Maryland's most powerful politicians on opposite sides of the issue.

A bill has cleared the House of Delegates that would block for 15 months any project with commercial-scale turbines within 56 miles of the naval air station. The no-build zone stretches across the Chesapeake to encompass the site of the proposed Great Bay wind project in Somerset County.

The O'Malley administration, allied with environmental advocates for renewable energy, opposes the moratorium — which would freeze commercial wind development in a significant portion of the state. But two of the state's most powerful elected officials in Washington, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Rep. Steny Hoyer, back the delay.

Southern Maryland lawmakers say more time is needed to complete a study of whether there's a way to mitigate the impacts of spinning turbines on a sensitive radar system used at the naval air station in St. Mary's County. It tests the way aircraft appear to enemy radar.

Del. John Bohanan, a St. Mary's County Democrat, said the region's representatives aren't against wind energy but are simply trying to protect what he called "our economic engine." Patuxent naval air station and the military contractors that serve it generate billions of dollars annually in commerce throughout the state, he said.

"We view it as no different than what the Eastern Shore is going to do to protect their chicken industry," said Bohanan. "These are things you can't get back. Once you lose them, they're gone."

He questioned whether the delay would really stop the project, which aims to put up 25 turbines, with another 25 possible later.

But Adam Cohen, vice president of Pioneer Green, the Texas-based company developing the project, said a year's delay could mean the loss of a valuable tax credit and force the company to refile permit applications after already investing four years getting to this point.

"To be clear," he said, "it kills our project."

Sen. James Mathias, a lower Eastern Shore Democrat, said the loss of the wind project would be a blow to Somerset, which has the second-highest unemployment in the state.

"We have kind of a scant industrial base there to start with," he said, "so everything we get in Somerset County is important to us."

All sides will have another opportunity to air their views at a Senate hearing on the legislation April 1.

Cohen acknowledged that the project's spinning turbines would interfere with Patuxent River's radar. A 2012 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that the sensitive system would be "significantly impacted" by wind turbines tall enough to be "seen" over the horizon by radio-frequency waves.

The MIT researchers identified some things that might be done to alter either the turbines or the radar to reduce or mitigate the interference. More testing is needed to see if any work, they said.

But in a presentation to the Somerset County commissioners that year, a Navy official suggested that turning the turbines off would be a "viable" way to avoid any interference with the radar.

Cohen said company representatives reached an agreement late last year with the Navy in which they pledged to turn the turbines off for 950 to 1,500 hours a year to accommodate the radar operations.

Since then, Patuxent River's base commander and an admiral have signed the agreement, Cohen said, but approval is still needed by two other Department of Defense officials.

A Pentagon spokesman confirmed this week that the agreement worked out with Pioneer Green would "provide the periodic curtailment of [wind turbine] operations required by the Navy." But he added that the Navy was waiting to see the outcome of the moratorium legislation in Annapolis.

Greg Gillingham, former director of the Naval Air Warfare Center's Atlantic Test Range, said turning off the turbines would indeed prevent interference with the radar. But he said stopping the turbines might tip off foreign intelligence services that testing is underway, a worry for the military programs using the base.

A spokeswoman for Hoyer, the Southern Maryland Democrat and U.S. House minority whip, said the congressman asked the Navy to hold off on the agreement.

In a statement, Hoyer said other military services using Patuxent River for classified testing "have indicated that the proposed curtailment is unacceptable." He warned they "could go elsewhere, which could put many high-paying jobs and economic activity in our state at risk."

Mikulski also issued a statement Friday urging delay.

"I have very serious reservations about the impact on Patuxent River Naval Air Station's ability to do its job," she said, urging lawmakers in Annapolis to "listen to the Navy and take their concerns into consideration."

But the O'Malley administration, which pushed through legislation setting a goal of producing a fifth of the state's energy from renewable sources by 2022, opposes the moratorium as unnecessary.

Abigail Hopper, director of the Maryland Energy Administration, noted that in 2012 — again, at the behest of Southern Maryland lawmakers — the General Assembly adopted legislation guaranteeing the Navy a hearing before the state Public Service Commission on any concerns it has about any wind projects. The commission, Hopper said, "is the appropriate forum to address these concerns."

Environmental groups that favor wind power say the moratorium would not only delay but discourage development of more such projects.

"Certainly no one wants to negatively affect Patuxent River," said Tommy Landers of Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

But the legislation, he said, "will set a horrible precedent that Maryland is no place to do business when it comes to wind power."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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