The developer of a wind energy project planned for Somerset County has abandoned the proposal, citing the continued opposition of Southern Maryland lawmakers concerned about protecting the work of the naval air station in their region.
The decision to halt the project comes as the General Assembly considers legislation that would permanently bar wind turbines from a large swath of the Eastern Shore. And another bill would let Kent County officials block tall turbines there.
Citing "unanticipated hurdles and roadblocks," Pioneer Green Energy informed Somerset County recently that it was shelving its plan to build 25 giant turbines capable of generating up to 150 megawatts of electricity. Somerset officials had welcomed the project for the jobs it could bring to their chronically depressed county. And environmentalists had praised it as a boost to Maryland's efforts to get more energy from renewable resources.
But Adam Cohen, vice president of the Texas-based energy company, said legislative hurdles put up by supporters of Naval Air Station Patuxent River created so much uncertainty he could not go forward.
"We ... are truly saddened we cannot bring new investment, jobs and tax base" to Maryland's poorest county, he said in a letter to Somerset officials. The project had been billed as a $200 million investment that could generate $2 million to $3 million in local tax revenue annually.
Environmental activists say the project's demise is a blow.
"It is sad and regrettable that there is not a wind farm under construction right now in the lower Eastern Shore because of these unnecessary legislative efforts to slow down wind development,'' said Mike Tidwell, head of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
Some in Congress and the General Assembly have been pushing to delay the project, saying they were not satisfied with protections designed to prevent interference with radar at the air station.
State lawmakers passed a 15-month moratorium last year, but former Gov. Martin O'Malley — a champion of wind energy — vetoed the bill. Then U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski got a hold put on the project last summer. But that's set to expire in September, so Southern Maryland lawmakers in Annapolis are trying to permanently bar wind projects on the Shore that they believe pose a threat to the naval air station in St. Mary's County.
Sen. Steve Waugh, a Calvert County Republican, is the sponsor of this year's bill in Annapolis to block any wind energy projects on Eastern Shore land east of the air station. He said that while he's in favor of green energy, he wants to "permanently and completely" prevent any wind turbine interference for Patuxent's specialized radar system, which is used to test the "stealth" capability of aircraft.
For Waugh and other Southern Maryland lawmakers, it's a matter of keeping more than 20,000 jobs associated with the base from being shifted to another state in the next congressional military base realignment.
"If we build windmills out there in the test range, then it will adversely affect the mission," Waugh said, "and the Navy may be forced to move the mission elsewhere."
Wind developers oppose the bill, along with environmentalists.
Bruce Burcat, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Renewable Energy Coalition, told the Senate Finance Committee that the bill would be a "serious blow" to wind energy in Maryland and "sends the wrong message" to prospective developers. While Maryland has three wind projects now in Western Maryland, he said, it is challenging to find good locations in the state, and the 46-mile radius put off-limits in the bill would cover a major portion of land ripe for such projects.
Pioneer Green, which actively fought last year's legislation, didn't bother this year. Cohen said the company has no plans to revive its Great Bay wind project. Instead, it's turning now to trying to develop a solar energy project in Somerset.
Farther up the Shore, another proposed wind project is stirring controversy and a legislative attempt to block it.
Sen. Stephen S. Hershey Jr. has put in a bill that would give Kent County officials the right to veto any large-scale wind project in their jurisdiction. The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to take up the measure Tuesday.
The county's three elected commissioners have asked for legislative help to block a 130-megawatt wind project proposed near Kennedyville in eastern Kent. Apex Clean Energy, a company based in Charlottesville, Va., says it proposes to put 25 to 35 large turbines a quarter- to a half-mile apart on farmland there — though opponents say the number could be as many as 49.
The company successfully lobbied last year for legislation allowing farmers to lease land that had been put under preservation. No local officials spoke against the project at that time.
But County Administrator Ernie Crofoot said people packed a county hearing recently to voice opposition to the project. They cited a variety of concerns, including a belief the turbines would mar scenic vistas in the rural county, and fear they could harm wildlife.
"We're an established route for migratory geese," Crofoot said. The county has zoning and development regulations, he said, but none that could be applied to limit such a project. Under current law, the Public Service Commission decides whether to permit such large-scale power projects, though it must consider the wishes of local officials.
Hershey, a Queen Anne's County Republican, said he was moved to put the bill in after learning that the turbines would be nearly 500 feet tall and spread across an area of thousands of acres. He called that a "massive" footprint "in a relatively rural and bucolic area."
William W. Pickrum, president of the county commissioners, wrote the Senate committee that the project "will most certainly have a negative effect" on farming, boating and tourism in the county and hurt property values.
The legislation has the support of local conservation groups and of Washington College in Chestertown. The school's interim president, Jack S. Griswold, warned in a letter to school staff and supporters that the turbines would "despoil this scenic landscape."
Tyson Utt, Apex's Mid-Atlantic development director, declined to respond directly to complaints about the project. But he said the company chose eastern Kent for its project in part because of high-voltage power lines nearby, a large swath of active farmland where turbines could be sited, and distance from sensitive wildlife habitats such as the bay and Chester or Sassafras rivers. He said electricity generated by the turbines could offset the carbon emissions generated annually by more than 20,000 cars.
Andrew Gohn, eastern regional director for the American Wind Energy Association, called the Kent County bill "an abrupt, last-minute policy shift that would jeopardize future investment and create an unfavorable business environment for clean energy industries."