Power struggle

Maryland green energy projects stall amid protests from worried neighbors

David Friend began scouting the former strip coal mine here 16 years ago, with visions that it could one day produce a different sort of energy.

The developer persuaded landowners along the blustery ridge in Western Maryland to bless his plans for more than two dozen wind turbines that would tower more than 40 stories high.

But after a years-long battle with Allegany County officials and concerned neighbors — a saga that has passed through the local zoning board and state Public Service Commission, and reached Maryland’s highest court — the clear-cut hilltops remain bare. The modern windmills that are visible from Interstate 68 are mostly in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Tens of thousands more have sprouted across the country.

It’s one of many examples in Maryland showing that, despite rhetoric to the contrary, it’s not always easy going green.

It took years for the General Assembly and the Public Service Commission to approve financial incentives that could one day support wind farms offshore, but concerns about beach views threaten to derail construction. Solar developers are encountering conflicts with farmers and mortgage lenders that threaten to slow the spread of photovoltaic panels across rural fields and suburban rooftops.

Eileen Stoger argues that living next to a wind farm isn’t a breeze. The Garrett County woman has joined Allegany County residents in their fight against the Dan’s Mountain proposal because she objects to a set of turbines already in her community. She says they can seem as loud as a jet engine and sometimes cast a strobe-light flicker that makes her dizzy. Many of her neighbors are suing the developers of the project, known as Fourmile Ridge Wind.

“It drives me crazy when people call them windmills,” she says. “Those are those cute little things in Holland.”

To be sure, renewable energy generation has grown in Maryland, as it has across the country, since the state began offering financial incentives to “green” power projects in 2004. The subsidies, which are funded through the rates Marylanders pay for electricity, funneled $127 million to reward renewable energy generators in 2015.

But while Maryland leaders bill the state as a progressive adopter of green energy, not all of the subsidies support clean projects. Proposed wind farms like the one on Dan’s Mountain have sputtered while much of the ratepayer investment is subsidizing the incineration of household trash, a paper-making byproduct known as black liquor and other fuels that emit greenhouse gases and toxic pollutants.

A facility in southern Virginia, for example, is collecting millions of dollars in Maryland subsidies, joining a paper mill in the Allegany County town of Luke and the Wheelabrator trash incinerator in Baltimore. The Virginia plant is powered by logging industry waste. The plant pays the timber companies for the wood scraps, giving them an indirect benefit from Maryland’s renewable energy program.

Environmentalists say such projects are using up subsidies that could otherwise stimulate clean energy development, and compromising a goal of generating 25 percent of Maryland’s power from more environmentally friendly sources.

“It’s kind of pointless to have a renewable portfolio that has got a big chunk of carbon-generating sources,” says Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Washington-based advocacy group Environmental Integrity Project. “I’d rather fall short than pad the portfolio.”

At the same time, new obstacles are arising as communities reckon with what it means to live next to the energy resources of the future.

Friend says he fears that political opposition, or even just uncertainty, will chill green energy investment. “It’s hard to go investing millions not knowing if you’re going to get a reasonable chance,” he says.

No matter how broad the support may be in Maryland for the goals of reducing global emissions and countering climate change, the Dan’s Mountain project shows that all politics are local.

Darlene Park says she isn’t against renewable energy. She just worries about the dangers 492-foot wind turbines could pose to her community, at the foot of Dan’s Mountain.

“Wind turbines are great,” says Park, leader of a group fighting the project.

But she adds, “They belong where they won’t bother anybody.”

An imposing neighbor

Stoger says she was riding horseback along a ridge west of Frostburg some three decades ago when she found the 30-acre property she knew had to be her home. She designed her 16-sided house with floor-to-ceiling windows so she could enjoy the mountain view — even from where her head lay on her pillow.

Now she is part of a chorus of Western Maryland residents who say the wind energy industry is disrupting their tranquility. The Fourmile Ridge project went up outside her windows in 2015.

“Now I have a beautiful view of all 16 turbines,” she says.

The amount of wind energy counted in Maryland’s energy supply has grown more than 200 times in the past decade, though most of it is imported from large wind farms in West Virginia, Illinois and Pennsylvania. The Fourmile Ridge project is one of a handful of wind farms that have sprouted in Garrett County, where there are no zoning rules to restrict the scope of projects.

None of those local projects have been built without acrimony.

Construction of a wind farm on Backbone Mountain, Maryland’s tallest peak, was challenged in 2010 when a group called Save Western Maryland argued that the developers did not obtain the proper permissions under the federal Endangered Species Act. A judge dismissed the claim in 2014, and the 28-turbine Criterion Wind Project went forward.

Conflicts over the Fourmile Ridge project have been more contentious.

Stoger says the inconvenience began during construction. Trucks hauling in the massive pieces of steel that make up the turbines blocked her way as she ferried her neighbors’ children to soccer practice. Frustrated that they would be late, she joked that the crews should come to practice, too — and run the laps the kids would face as punishment.

Once the turbines started operating, neighbors say, the real problems started. They described their concerns in testimony to the Public Service Commission.

Tony Bequette, who manages a small farm near the project, says that he has to turn on white noise so his daughters can sleep and that he awakens frequently at night. He thinks the turbines’ noise has given his daughter migraines and nausea.

Kenneth Garlitz, who lives down the road from Stoger, says the disruptions make him constantly grumpy when he’s at home, and the red lights atop each turbine, resembling the glowing eyes of giants, force his family to keep their blinds closed, especially when it’s foggy.

“It is menacing,” he told the commissioners. “This is no way to live.”

Bequette and Garlitz are among more than two dozen neighbors who are suing the project and its owner, Exelon Corp., in federal court.

Exelon Generation says that the noise falls “well within” limits for residential areas and that the wind farm is otherwise in compliance with all state regulatory requirements. The company, as well as the American Wind Energy Association, says there is no evidence that wind turbines can cause serious health problems.

“While we recognize that wind turbines emit audible sound, we strongly dispute any claim that wind turbines can cause adverse health effects,” officials said in a statement.

The residents beg to differ. Stoger, who says she did not join the lawsuit because she’s on a fixed income as a retired schoolteacher, says she is speaking out because her neighbors cannot.

“I feel like we’ve been sold up the creek,” she says. “This was my dream home. And now it’s a nightmare.”

An uphill struggle

The residents of Dan’s Mountain have been anticipating a wind farm on their ridge since 2001 — the year Friend first began knocking on their doors explaining that they could be paid to lease their land for it.

Some were skeptical, so they investigated.

Fred Loar drove across the Pennsylvania border until he found a wind turbine near a barn near Garrett, Pa. He stopped to watch and listen. When a car pulled up to the house across the street, he figured he should explain what he was doing. He says he ended up talking to the man for two hours — and becoming convinced that allowing wind turbines on his own 200-acre farm was a smart move.

Rick Lashbaugh, another Dan’s Mountain resident, took a similar drive. A man in a yard near turbines in Myersville, Pa., told him that he didn’t mind the windmills, but that his wife did. When Lashbaugh asked why, the man turned to a house across the street.

“Those people get money for the turbine and we don’t,” Lashbaugh remembers the man saying.

Loar, Lashbaugh and many of their neighbors signed off on the project. They declined to say how much they stand to earn. Friend said it would be based on a percentage of the wind farm’s revenue, and the amount would depend on energy prices.

Loar, who grows hay and raises cattle, says it’s getting harder to make money from farming. The turbines would represent a new source of income. Lashbaugh and many of his neighbors along Burning Mines Road are eager for the project because the developers would pave a gravel road that the residents currently have to plow and repair themselves.

But down the mountain, the reaction was different.

Residents say they aren’t against wind energy, or renewable energy in general. The problem, they say, is that the Dan’s Mountain project is simply too large. For some, it’s too ugly; they are, after all, the ones who have to look up at the ridge.

Some are concerned about safety should one of the turbines accidentally fall, as others have.

Some worry that once the turbines are no longer generating electricity, no one will bother to tear them down. Residents cite examples of rusted, abandoned wind farms in Australia they read about on the Internet; wind energy industry officials say that is a myth, and energy developers say they set aside money to decommission projects.

Darlene Park leads ANCHOR — Allegany Citizens and Neighbors for Homeowners Rights.

“You don’t build wind turbines in between five communities on small narrow strips of land,” she says.

Group members had the Dan’s Mountain project in mind as they pushed Allegany County commissioners to pass rules in 2009 that set minimum buffers between wind turbines and homes. Their pressure helped reduce the plan from 28 turbines to 19, and eventually 17. And they cheered when the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals in November 2015 rejected the nearly two dozen variances the project would have needed to comply with the rules.

Friend and the companies behind the project — first U.S. Wind Force and now Laurel Renewable Partners — haven’t stopped fighting, either. They appealed the zoning board’s decision; the case is pending before the state Court of Special Appeals. (The state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, declined last year to hear their case.)

Seeking to circumvent Allegany County altogether, the developer went to the Public Service Commission in January 2016 and asked it to bless the project through the power it holds to pre-empt local zoning decisions on power plant projects.

The commission in July rejected the project’s application for a key permit known as a certificate of public convenience. It said the benefits the project provided to the energy grid and environment did not outweigh the expected visual and auditory impacts.

Despite the rejections — and with $5 million invested to date, Friend says — he isn’t giving up. An appeal to the commission’s ruling is pending in Baltimore Circuit Court.

Policymaking ahead

The challenges of projects like the Dan’s Mountain wind farm are posing tough questions for the lawmakers and lobbyists who are trying to coax clean energy along.

Environmental groups are already asking the General Assembly to increase Maryland’s supply of green energy. A state program created in 2004 and updated most recently in January will require utilities to subsidize enough renewable energy to equal a quarter of the electricity they sell by 2020. The program provides a financial boost for projects that are considered environmentally friendly.

But the growth in the supply of renewable power across the country, including in the regional power grid that includes Maryland, means demand for new green projects has fallen. To jump-start new projects, advocates say, Maryland should require that a larger share of the power supply be green.

Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, says if the mandate can be increased to make at least half of the state’s energy renewable, then the green power industry won’t need financial assistance anymore.

“Once you reach 50 percent,” he says, “that bird’s going to fly on its own.”

Some want lawmakers to revisit a more complicated question: What should be considered renewable energy? The state currently considers household waste and black liquor, a waste product from paper-making, as green fuels, even though burning them releases tons of pollution. State residents send millions of dollars in subsidies to trash incinerators and paper mills each year.

Mitch Jones, a senior policy advocate with Food and Water Watch, has spent months trying to convince lawmakers to rewrite the law, taking the “green” label away from anything that involves combustion or incineration.

But it’s unclear whether the General Assembly will want to take up the issue again so soon. During last year’s legislative session, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed a bill that increased the renewable energy requirement to 25 percent. The Democratic-led General Assembly voted this year to override him, making the bill law. Some lawmakers say that could limit the appetite for more changes.

And there’s another question: As the state pushes for more renewable energy projects, how much say should be given to the communities in which they’re to be built?

The controversy isn’t confined to Dan’s Mountain, or to wind farms.

Proposals for large solar energy projects have raised concern among farmers who worry about a loss of agricultural land. Baltimore County approved rules this year that require developers to get special zoning exemptions before installing solar panels on farm fields and limit the scale of the solar arrays. Anne Arundel County this month imposed an eight-month ban on solar farms as it weighs concerns. And several Eastern Shore counties have also acted to restrict solar farms.

Meanwhile, the prospect of wind turbines off the shores of Ocean City continues to stir controversy there.

Officials in the resort town say turbines would be a tourism-discouraging eyesore. The state utility commission this year approved subsidies for offshore wind farms, but local officials are not giving up their fight. They have hired top Annapolis lobbyist Bruce Bereano and enlisted the help of Rep. Andy Harris. Harris, Maryland’s lone Republican in Congress, amended a spending bill this summer to block federal officials from performing the evaluations necessary for federal approval of any offshore wind project that is less than 24 miles from Maryland’s coast.

The Maryland General Assembly passed legislation this year to require the Public Service Commission to work more closely with county officials before approving wind and solar projects.

Some in Annapolis say they worry about the effects on the state’s larger goals of producing cleaner energy and growing jobs and industry.

“If now we’re changing things, and making it impossible to site a large solar farm or a large wind turbine farm, where are the jobs associated with that going to be?” asks state Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton, a Southern Maryland Democrat. “They’re going to be jobs in the Midwest or other places.”

Maryland could be headed for a reckoning.

According to the state’s top lawyers, the problem is that Maryland’s system of vetting energy projects was designed for massive coal or nuclear power plants, not smaller renewable projects that can more easily be scattered around communities.

But change will be no small undertaking. In a recent presentation to a committee of the state’s Power Plant Research Program, the Attorney General’s Office said adjusting the review process to reflect the changing energy industry could require action by lawmakers or judges — “and likely both.”

“The outcome is uncertain,” the lawyers concluded.

‘You’ve got to fight’

In the meantime, projects are advancing where they find less resistance. In the time since Allegany County passed zoning to block the Dan’s Mountain project, a wood-burning facility in South Boston, Va., went from an idea to a reality.

It was 2009 when officials with NOVEC, an electricity cooperative that serves more than 150,000 households in Northern Virginia, began considering converting a former particle board factory into a power plant. The availability of renewable energy subsidies from Maryland was a significant driver of the project, says John Rainey, director of the plant’s operations.

The $178 million project began operating four years later, and it quickly became one of Maryland’s largest producers of energy that state lawmakers have deemed renewable.

It burns chipped branches and tree trunks that would otherwise be worthless waste, but is now worth hundreds of dollars per truckload for loggers across the rural region near the North Carolina border. The plant employs about two dozen people.

Rainey says it has been a significant boost to the community.

“They were all gung ho for it because of the economic value it was going to bring,” he says.

Much of that value is coming from Maryland electricity ratepayers. In 2015, the South Boston facility accounted for about 5 percent of Maryland’s non-solar renewable energy supply — qualifying it for millions of dollars in subsidies through the state’s incentive program.

To Friend, the organizer of the Dan’s Mountain project, it’s frustrating to watch other projects move forward as his stalls. Twice, he says, delays have cost him deals to eventually sell the wind farm. Even if he succeeds in his appeals, he will again have to find a new deep-pocketed partner.

His saga has dragged on so long that his two sons who tagged along with him to the project site as young boys are now grown with jobs of their own. He has gotten to know the Dan’s Mountain residents so well, he has attended family reunions and trades Christmas cards with them.

He says he considers the effort to be worth its challenges. But he fears that potential investors or developers in other renewable projects in Maryland are being scared off by opposition and uncertainty. The state bills itself as a progressive place that welcomes green energy, but the words ring hollow to those who are struggling to align their projects with the wishes of angry or scared neighbors.

“How do you play in that game when it largely comes down to, if there’s any political opposition, you lose?” Friend asks.

Middleton, one of the General Assembly leaders who has molded Maryland’s renewable energy incentives, is frustrated, too. For all the lobbying to establish Maryland’s green energy goals, he sees little action when specific projects become controversial.

Without them, he says, goals of a greener energy grid will remain out of reach.

“When these projects come about, you’ve got to fight to make them happen,” Middleton says. “If you don’t, why do we do this?”

About the series:

This project was supported with a grant from the Society of Environmental Journalists, a professional organization dedicated to increasing and improving coverage of environmental issues.

Read the first in the series: The Battle for Luke: A massive paper mill in a tiny town in Western Maryland has been ground zero for the debate over what should be considered green energy – and qualify for millions of dollars in subsidies.

Read the second in the series: The Greenwashing of Trash: A trash incinerator in Southwest Baltimore has received millions of dollars in subsidies since state lawmakers declared it “green” in 2011, but residents who have endured a legacy of pollution hope to shut it down.

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