Wind energy push loses power

Despite incentives, turbine farm development stalls in Md.

July 31, 2006|By TOM PELTON | TOM PELTON,SUN REPORTER

Backbone Mountain -- Wayne Rogers scrambles atop a rocky ridge in Western Maryland and sees a row of wind turbines that look like an advancing army of robots, each taller than the Statue of Liberty.

They're waving to him from just across the state line, in West Virginia. Wind machines are also marching across Pennsylvania and 30 other states, with about 20,000 generating power nationally without producing any air pollution.

But none has been built in Maryland, despite more than three years of work by Rogers and two other wind developers.

The lack of wind farms in Maryland - more than a year after 77 turbines were supposed to have been completed here - remains despite new state and federal laws designed to encourage renewable energy.

"It's frustrating," said Rogers, former chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party. His Annapolis-based company, Synergics Wind Energy LLC, lacks state approval for a $55 million project to build up to 20 turbines along the Backbone Mountain range, the state's highest ridge.

"If the state is not going to approve wind turbines in a remote corner of the state, near other wind turbines, power lines and a coal mine, then where should we build them?" Rogers said, pointing to a mountain of coal at the base of the forested ridge where he wants to build.

The state Public Service Commission hasn't yet issued a decision on Rogers' application. But the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has objected that part of Rogers' project could disturb the habitat of animals that are threatened or endangered in the state, including the Allegheny woodrat, the rock vole and the mourning warbler.

"The site they're looking at has very unique habitat features on it," said John Sherwell, administrator of the agency's power plant research program. "There are very few places in Maryland over 3,000 feet, and very few places left that are refuges for these animals."

Proposals by Clipper Windpower to build 40 turbines farther north in Garrett County and by US Wind Force for about 60 near Lonaconing and Dan's Mountain in Allegany County lack financing and contracts with electricity distributors.

"The fact that we can't get a wind farm going in Maryland is a sad state of affairs," said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, which supports wind power because it doesn't produce carbon dioxide or other gases that contribute to global warming.

"But I predict this will change, because climate impacts are accelerating to such an extreme, with hurricanes, sea-level change and wildfires," Tidwell said. "The fact remains that our state desperately needs to develop alternatives to fossil fuel."

Part of the blame for the delays, Tidwell said, lies with a small group of anti-wind activists led by D. Daniel Boone, whose family owns land near Backbone Mountain. They have filed protests with state agencies and a lawsuit challenging the projects.

Boone, a 49-year-old environmental consultant and former wildlife coordinator for the Natural Resources department, said it's a "great thing" that wind farms are failing in the state. He said their huge whirling blades and industrial appearance ruin scenic ridges and kill bats.

"I'm pleased to hear that they are having difficulty getting started," said Boone, who lives in Bowie. "That site [where Rogers wants to build] has some of the most spectacular forests in the state."

Across the U.S., wind power produces a fraction of 1 percent of the total electricity supply. But record numbers of windmills are being built, in part because of tax credits approved as part of last year's federal energy bill, said Christine Real de Azua, spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association.

Although some projects in the Northeast have run into opposition from neighbors, about 1,600 turbines were built last year - many in Texas, Washington, Oregon and Midwestern states such as Iowa and Kansas. About 2,000 more are expected to start turning this year, she said.

Maryland lawmakers in 2004 passed a law requiring 7.5 percent of the electricity sold in the state to come from renewable sources by 2019. But that law doesn't specify that the sources must be wind or must come from Maryland.

Kevin Rackstraw, development leader for the eastern division of Clipper Windpower, said Maryland's incentives for wind power are weaker than those in other states.

His company wants to build a $120 million string of 40 windmills about a mile north of Rogers' proposed site, also along Backbone Mountain, south of Oakland, in Garrett County. This project received state approval in 2003 but has been unable to move forward because of a lack of investors or utility companies willing to sign contracts promising to buy the electricity, Rackstraw said.

"The governor says he's interested in alternative power, but nobody is really pushing wind power in Maryland," Rackstraw said.

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