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News Opinion Editorial

Eastern Shore wind farm: Let the Navy decide [Editorial]

The wind-power power struggle at the highest levels of Maryland's Democratic Party seemed to have been decided in May when Gov. Martin O'Malley bucked Rep. Steny Hoyer to veto legislation that would have essentially killed a green energy project on the Eastern Shore. But it's only gotten hotter this summer, with Sen. Barbara Mikulski doubling down on the side of those who worry the turbines would jeopardize advanced radar testing at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River across the Chesapeake Bay. The powerful Appropriations Committee chairwoman is pushing language in a defense authorization bill aimed at stopping the Navy from entering any memorandum of understanding with the wind farm's developer until a second phase of an MIT study on the matter is completed next summer.

On the surface, her stance sounds eminently reasonable. Senator Mikulski says she supports wind energy but thinks we should wait to get all the information before making a decision on the project. If we're spending $2 million for MIT to conduct the study, shouldn't we wait to see what it says?

But the fact of the matter is that a delay until next summer means the project can't get started in time to qualify for federal tax credits, which are due to expire. And the project's developers would have to re-file for a variety of permits that took them four years to obtain the first time. Great Bay Energy officials say a year's delay unequivocally kills the project. An agreement with the Navy isn't the only hurdle this project faces, but waiting for the rest of the MIT study makes the remaining state and local approvals moot.

The project's demise would be unfortunate on several fronts. It would eliminate an economic shot in the arm for Somerset County, Maryland's poorest, and it would make it that much harder for the state to meet its clean energy production goals. More broadly, it would send a signal that the state's commitment to renewable energy — and business investment in general — is so low that it is willing to allow what is at best a theoretical concern to trump a project like this.

What is so perplexing about this controversy is that Senator Mikulski and Representative Hoyer are setting themselves up as being fiercer guardians of Pax River than the base's commanders are. What the first phase of the MIT study found is that 600-foot, spinning turbines at the location in question would interfere with Patuxent River's radar tests. But they would not interfere if the turbines were stilled. Great Bay and the Navy negotiated a memorandum of understanding calling for the turbines to be turned off for 950 to 1,500 hours a year — that is, almost 20 percent of the time — to accommodate testing. Patuxent River's base commander has already signed it, though it still requires further defense department approvals.

Opponents of the project contend that turning off the turbines isn't a sufficient solution because it could tip off potential adversaries as to when testing was taking place, enabling them to focus their spy satellites or other means of surveillance on the base. The radar in question is designed to determine the stealthiness of aircraft, so the tests would likely be of interest to our geopolitical foes.

But the developers' plans call for the turbines to be turned off well in excess of the amount of time the Navy needs for its testing for a variety of reasons — too much wind, too little wind, issues related to integration with the power grid, and so on. At best, the turbines might tell a foreign power when tests aren't occurring. And in any event, shouldn't we be able to trust the Navy to come to an appropriate conclusion about its own security needs? What Senator Mikulski's budget language does, specifically, is to direct the Navy not to enter into a memorandum of understanding for the project before Congress is briefed on the second phase of the MIT study. Does the Navy really need to be saved from itself?

Phase two of the study is not going to find some new risk posed by the proposed development. Rather, it is focused on determining whether an alternative arrangement — say, shorter windmills or a technological fix — could eliminate the potential conflict altogether. This is not a better-safe-than-sorry situation; it's one in which we have an already workable arrangement that could possibly be made better. The memorandum of understanding includes language authorizing the Navy to make changes based on phase two findings.

But that won't happen at all if Senator Mikulski succeeds in blocking the Navy from finalizing its agreement with Great Bay. The appropriations language is non-binding, but it's doubtful that the Navy would buck the wishes of so influential a lawmaker. That's why she needs to drop her support for it. We appreciate her concern for the future of so vital an economic engine for Southern Maryland as Pax River, but we ask her to let the Navy come to its own conclusions about the project without political interference.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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