The wind swooped along a narrow ridge of Backbone Mountain and coaxed the gigantic blades on dozens of sleek white turbines to turn in a graceful, choreographed routine, like birds pirouetting against the clouds.
The Mountaineer Wind Energy Center, which opened in December in West Virginia near the Maryland border, turns travelers' heads along winding, hilly Route 219 for good reason. Once limited largely to the Far West, electricity-generating windmills are beginning to sprout on hilltops and ridges across the nation.
Wind power developers are looking at the mountains of Western Maryland as the next frontier.
That region is ripe for development, they say, because it's windy, close enough to densely populated areas and offers plenty of available land on farms, mountaintops or coal mines, active and abandoned, in an area hungry for economic development
Developers say as many as 1,000 windmills towering more than 200 feet could someday dot Maryland's mountain ridges.
This year, Clipper Windpower Inc. and US WindForce LLC became the first two developers to win state approval to build wind energy centers with a combined 92 turbines in Allegany and Garrett counties.
The two companies have land deals in place and permits in hand to build windmill farms by the end of next year, though they still face significant hurdles.
Others hope to someday plant hundreds of wind turbines offshore in the Atlantic Ocean - including off Maryland's coast - in longer-term proposals that have stirred up far more controversy.
Improved turbines, a growing green-energy market and a federal tax credit are spurring development in the East, which has lower wind speeds than other areas of the country.
"Five years ago, the technology wasn't quite there. The cost of energy would have been too high," said Kevin Rackstraw, regional leader of eastern North America for Clipper, which plans to build up to 67 wind turbines on the Maryland side of Backbone Mountain near Oakland. The wind farm will generate 101 megawatts, enough to power 35,000 homes.
Higher energy costs and rising demand are creating a significant market for wind power, Rackstraw said, adding, "Wind is much more attractive than two or three years ago."
Officials with the state and Allegany and Garrett counties envision the first two Maryland wind projects as the start of something much bigger: a new industry for an economically lagging area of the state that has suffered more than its share of job losses.
Officials look to the wind farms to bring in construction and maintenance jobs, tax revenue and tourists.
The $110 million Clipper Windpower project is expected to be the largest single investment ever in Garrett County. It also would be the county's largest property taxpayer, generating more than $1 million annually. Project managers plan to pay $2 million to $3.5 million in construction wages.
"It's hard for us to say no to $100 million" in a single investment, Garrett County Commissioner Fred Holliday said during a community meeting last month near Cumberland.
"That's a lot of money for schools and roads and other purposes. People say, 'My God, you're ruining the mountain.' But which is worse, houses or wind turbines? I think this is the way to go economically. This is going to help."
Wind power, which has been used for millennia, is the world's fastest-growing energy technology. It has burgeoned into a $10 billion-a-year industry, surpassing nuclear power in capacity installed each year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Wind is free, nonpolluting and renewable, not imported and not subject to control by a cartel such as the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. And, because of the federal tax credit, the cost has come more into line with that of generators fueled by natural gas, at an average of 3 cents to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour. Coal-fired plants are generally the cheapest.
Still, wind produces a small fraction of the nation's power - about a third of a percentage point - enough for about 1.57 million U.S. homes.
The United States has about 17 percent of the installed wind capacity worldwide. Germany and Denmark are the leaders. In the mid-Atlantic region, only Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York have wind power centers, most of which have begun operating since 1999.
Increasing wind energy, a goal of the federal government, remains challenging because, as any becalmed sailor knows, wind doesn't blow on demand. What's more, the technology costs more upfront than fossil-fuel generators do, and some prime wind sites are too remote from power customers.
Environmentalists have raised concerns over aesthetics, noise and the effects on migrating birds, which are sometimes killed when they fly into the rotors.
Still, the nation is on its way to meeting modest goals first set during the Clinton administration. The Energy Department's wind initiative calls for producing at least 5 percent of the nation's electricity with wind by 2020 and increasing the number of states with more than 20 megawatts of wind power to 16 by 2005.
"In the U.S., a range of 10 percent to 20 percent is feasible," said Tom Gray, deputy executive director of the American Wind Energy Association. "We think 6 percent by 2020 is achievable, a conservative number that could be higher. "
The first Maryland projects, even with leases on the land and permits and environmental studies in hand, are by no means done deals. The companies still need financing, which has become much more difficult in the tumult that has engulfed the power industry since Enron's collapse.
Before they can hope for financing, the developers need to persuade utilities or other wholesale buyers to sign long-term power contracts. More problematic, the companies' negotiations with potential customers can't be concluded until Congress extends the wind power federal tax credit, which is to expire at year's end. The tax extension is part of the energy bill being discussed in Congress.
"Until that gets extended ... nobody is willing to sign our contract," Clipper's Rackstraw said.
The obstacles are even greater for offshore wind farms, none of which has been built in the United States.
"Nobody wants it done in their back yard; nobody wants to see these turbines in the water," said Dennis Quaranta, president of Long Island, N.Y.-based Winergy LLC, which is hoping to build its first project off Virginia's coast by 2005. "It's costlier to go offshore [than on land], and again, nobody's gone through the process. Once the first ones are done, it will be easier and more accepted."
Winergy met fierce community resistance this year to a plan for as many as 352 windmills 3 1/2 miles off Ocean City.
"The people were very, very upset and did not want it there," Quaranta said. "They told us not to come back."
But the company hasn't given up on the idea. Depending on how the Virginia project goes, Quaranta expects to complete applications with the Army Corps of Engineers to build off the coasts of Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware.
Despite the uncertainties, developers are pushing ahead with the Western Maryland projects.
On an abandoned coal mine high on Savage Mountain south of Frostburg, David F. McAnally, US WindForce's chairman and chief executive, recently climbed over barren, rocky ground, and looked down into a deep pit littered with old, broken chairs, lawnmowers and appliances.
On nearly 1,000 acres leased from four coal companies, including one that is actively mining along the ridge, McAnally's company plans to put up 25 wind turbines, each producing 2 megawatts of electricity, enough for 15,000 homes.
"We can take something that was mined, that was torn apart and never would be used again," he said. "There's great potential in this part of the state. You could have a tremendous industry without packing a turbine on every hilltop. Wind allows an offset to forms of power generation that have been emitters of pollutants. We think people will embrace this new type of power generation."
US WindForce has developed and sold 40 wind farms across the country. It is developing projects in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia in addition to Savage Mountain. The company also is seeking permits to build a second project, on Dans Mountain in Allegany County, by 2005.
State and county officials think hundreds of millions of dollars in wind farm development can have a ripple effect economically, spurring more jobs and revenue by luring related businesses - turbine manufacturers, for instance - to the area.
The promise of an economic windfall has prompted neighboring states to pave the way for wind farms with incentives.
Pennsylvania set goals for utilities to buy renewable energy when it deregulated its electric industry, and West Virginia has fewer regulations than Maryland, said Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, which promotes clean, renewable energy. Maryland, he said, has done nothing.
"You have an industry that's ready to come into this state, and Western Maryland in particular," he said. "What's holding it up? We're surrounded by these states that are incentivizing wind development."
Maryland could lure more wind farms if the state's utilities were required by law to purchase a certain percentage of their energy from renewable sources, say proponents of a "renewable portfolio standard," a measure that has been defeated before in the Maryland legislature.
Such a measure has been enacted in some form in 14 states, but Maryland's utilities have opposed it.
Michael T. Richard, director of the Maryland Energy Administration, said the Ehrlich administration is working on a number of ways to promote renewable energy, including a possible state tax credit. The renewable standard "very well could be a bill we could support for Maryland. It was a great means to bring wind energy projects to Texas," he said.
Constellation Energy Group, parent of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., would support a renewable standard in the state if details, such as how to define renewable energy, could be worked out, said spokesman Robert L. Gould.
"We are supportive of renewable energy," Gould said. "We think that market forces are the best drivers of technology and fuel diversity. We do believe incentives can be provided to the end user that would be useful in encouraging the development of renewable resources."
Such a requirement would help lower some of the barriers to getting wind projects built, said Rackstraw, whose California-based company, Clipper, is the developer of the proposed Oakland wind farm on Backbone Mountain.
"The difficult part is convincing a power buyer to take on the risk of a long-term power contract," he said. "But we like to tell people, even though there may be a premium to certain kinds of power today, our power is a fixed cost. The price I sell to them today, I can sell to them for the next 20 years. It's not subject to federal fuel price fluctuations."
In the case of Mountaineer Wind Energy Center, the operator, FPL Energy, sells 100 percent of the electricity to Exelon Generation Co. under a long-term contract.
On a sunny, windy day in West Virginia, Mary Wells of FPL strolled down the winding road through Mountaineer wind farm where 44 windmills form a line over six miles of ridge on Backbone Mountain in Tucker County.
Since opening in December, the center has been a good producer for FPL, which operates 30 windmill farms in 10 states, Wells said. Passers-by often stop and inquire about the height of the towers (228 feet) and the length of the blades (115 feet).
Wells said technology has improved drastically since windmills were first used commercially to generate electricity in the early 1980s. At the time the blades turned much faster, each tower had a huge footprint and many more towers were needed to generate the 1.5 to 2 megawatts of electricity put out by a single turbine today.
At Mountaineer, electricity is produced when the wind powers a generator in a box called a nacelle on top of each windmill tower. The electricity is then sent to a transformer next to each tower, which kicks up the voltage and sends it off to the substation. Computers in each tower take readings of wind direction and speed, and program the head of the turbine, which can turn 360 degrees so that the blades are always facing the wind.
One of Mountaineer's customers is American University in Washington, which has bought 5 percent of its electricity from the wind center.
"It does cost us more to purchase, but the fact is we recognize we're paying some costs associated with fossil fuel and nuclear that we don't necessarily know about," said William Suter, director of physical plant operations.
"We are attempting as an institution to reduce ... the impact of what we do on the environment. This was just one thing we were able to do."