Maryland's shoreline and some of its most scenic mountains could soon be home to hundreds of towers that look like science fiction or the latest in modern art - wind turbines that stand 300 feet high and have blades that reach more than 100 feet into the air as they spin.
Three energy firms are seeking state and federal approvals to erect huge wind farms 3.5 miles off Ocean City, along a 10-mile stretch of mountains in Garrett County and along a three-mile stretch of Big Savage Mountain in Allegany County.
The developers say that the projects will mean clean power, help cut back on foreign oil imports and - in Western Maryland - bring jobs and tax revenues to a region where unemployment is among the highest in the state.
"We think we'll be beautifying our site," said Tom Matthews, president of US Wind Force, the Pittsburgh-based company that wants to build 25 wind turbines on some former strip mines southwest of Cumberland in Allegany County.
Matthews said that the towers west of Lonaconing will range in height from 213 feet to 328 feet, and that each will have a turbine mounted on it generating enough power for 500 homes.
But opponents say the towers - which will be visible from the Ocean City coastline and the shoreline of Deep Creek Lake - will pose a danger to birds and create an eyesore in some of Maryland's most scenic areas.
Robert McIntire, a Baltimore lawyer who was born and raised in Garrett County and owns property there, said plans by California-based Clipper Windpower Inc. for 67 towers along Backbone Mountain will forever mar the beautiful views along Deep Creek Lake.
"This is going to have a major impact on Deep Creek Lake, one of the state's premier resort areas," he said. "You're talking about million-dollar home sites out there."
Worries about birds
Bird enthusiasts also are concerned.
"They're just ready to sacrifice whatever scenic beauty they have to. It's the greed factor at work," said Floyd Presley, who holds a federal permit to capture and place bands on hawks and other predatory birds for tracking by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Presley, a retired engineer, said that Big Savage Mountain is a flyway for golden eagles and a habitat for red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons. All are rare predators that will be put at risk by the towers, he said.
"They talk about acceptable losses of birds, but what's acceptable to them might not be acceptable to me and other people," he said.
The Public Service Commission has scheduled a hearing at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow to begin reviewing proposals submitted by US Wind Force and Clipper Windpower Inc.
Industry officials say the projects will kill fewer birds and be no more visible than the cellular telephone towers that dot landscapes throughout the state.
The wind-farm towers are built on a single shaft and their blades spin slowly, making them less of a danger to birds than the lattice-style towers that killed birds when the first wind farms were built in the 1970s, they say.
"The technology's improved to a point where there really isn't a problem," said Ron Orozco, who is managing Clipper's 67-turbine project planned near Oakland.
Frederick H. Hoover, Jr., director of the Maryland Energy Administration, said that any environmental concerns raised by opponents will be carefully examined. But he said that a wind farm would generally be considered a "constructive addition" to Maryland's power system.
"We're actually kind of anxious to see this type of energy source come into the state," Hoover said.
Winergy LLC, of Shirley, N.Y., which is planning the wind farm off Ocean City, has yet to submit plans to the PSC.
But the firm has submitted plans to the Army Corps of Engineers to mount up to 350 towers on concrete platforms and anchor them in 60 feet of water across a 71-square-mile area of the Atlantic, roughly 3.5 miles off Ocean City.
Winergy's towers would stand about 300 feet above sea level, with three rotating blades that reach an additional 150 feet in the air when they spin, said Dennis Quaranta, Winergy's president.
Developers of the two Western Maryland sites hope to begin operating by the end of next year. But Winergy's president said the federal approvals for any ocean-based wind farms - such as have been built in Europe but not in the United States - might take three to five years.
Winergy has announced plans for wind farms at 17 sites along the East Coast. One of its proposals, to erect 400 towers in the waters off Massachusetts near Nantucket Island, has drawn fire from environmentalists, who say the project amounts to placing an industrial facility in a setting known for its natural beauty.
Quaranta anticipates similar criticism about his plans for the site off Ocean City. "There's going to be a lot of people who are going to like us and a lot of people who are going to hate us," he said.
Technology and taxes
Energy experts say that the number of wind farms has increased steadily in recent years as improvements in turbine technology have driven down the cost to produce power from them.
The projects also are being spurred at least partly by federal tax incentives aimed at promoting alternative energy. To qualify for the tax break, though, the wind farms must be built and operating by Dec. 31, 2003.
The towers planned for the two Western Maryland sites will be identical to those built over the past two years at wind farms in Somerset County, Pa., about 80 miles north of the Garrett County site. To meet federal aviation requirements, there are flashing lights on some of those towers.
"They look like something that came from outer space," said Nathaniel A. Barbera, a Somerset lawyer representing farmers who leased their lands for the Pennsylvania wind farms.
A tourist attraction
Barbera was chairman of a 13-member panel appointed by the Somerset County commissioners last year to determine whether more environmental regulations are needed for wind farms. But he said that after a series of public hearings the group concluded that there was no need for more regulations because the facilities posed no major problems.
"If anything, they're a tourist attraction," he said.
Industry experts say that to succeed, a wind farm needs access to utility lines and average wind speeds in excess of 16 mph, which is more than enough to turn the 2-ton, 120-foot blades that power the turbines and produce the electricity.
"You need mountains or maybe winds off the ocean, and generally, the higher the site the more wind you're going to have," said Brent Alderfer, president of Community Energy, a company based in Wayne, Pa., that buys power from wind farms and sells it to colleges and business willing to pay higher costs for a clean source of energy.
National Weather Service records show that wind speeds at Baltimore-Washington International Airport average 9 mph, making Central Maryland an unsuitable location, experts say.
But the winds above the mountains of Western Maryland make them an ideal site, they say.
Kevin Rackstraw, Clipper's Bethesda-based manager of Eastern regional operations, said Clipper selected its site in Garrett County after a three-year search. The firm installed an anemometer on a 100-foot tower a year ago to measure wind speed at Kelso Gap - the center of Clipper's 10-mile path of proposed towers.
"There's plenty of wind out here," said Ron Orozco, Clipper's Oakland-based project manager, as he stood on Eagle Rock, a 3,160-foot peak in southern Garrett where West Virginia's tree-covered mountains can be seen rolling on for miles to the south and west.
But along with the other wind-farm developers, Clipper officials refuse to release figures on the wind speeds at the site.
"This is a competitive industry just like anything else," Rackstraw said. "When an oil company finds a site, it doesn't tell you how deep the oil is, or anything about the quality of the oil."
Clipper has signed leases with a dozen Garrett farmers and other landowners, agreeing to pay roughly $2,000 to $4,000 a year to plant modern-day windmills on their properties.
Power generated from the Western Maryland sites will be transferred to the power grid that supplies electricity to utilities across the mid-Atlantic.
Environmental groups say they generally support wind farms because they are a clean source of power.
"I am concerned about seeing these towers all over the place, but it'll be a clean energy source and also bring jobs, which is a big issue out here," said Sam White of Mount Savage, who is chairman of the Sierra Club's Western Maryland chapter.
"We're on the side of caution, but we think they're a good idea overall," said John Bianci, a spokesman for the Audubon Society in New York.