Harvesting the wind wisely

November 05, 2006

After 2 1/2 years of debate on everything from the plight of rattlesnakes and wrens to property values, a proposal to harvest some of the wind blowing across Western Maryland's mountains received a deservedly qualified boost last week when a state Public Service Commission official recommended approval of a plan to erect 17 giant wind-mill turbines in Garrett County.

Commercial wind farming is still in its infancy, though it is catching on. With good reason, Maryland has been cautious about embracing wind power. In return for a meager amount of energy, the downside - noise, bird fatalities and unsightly vistas - makes for a risky investment.

But unless Marylanders wish to pay only lip service to the notion of seeking cleaner sources of power and choose to ignore a state goal of producing 7.5 percent of their electricity from renewable resources by 2017, work on finding alternatives has to begin somewhere. And in Maryland, that somewhere may be remote Backbone Mountain, at 3,360 feet the highest point in the state's Appalachian Plateau and the proposed site for Annapolis-based Synergics Inc.'s mountaintop wind farm.

What makes the recent nod to the wind project acceptable - and what has softened our original skepticism - is a list of 24 conditions set forth by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which dispatched wildlife experts to Backbone Mountain in search of flora and fauna that might be affected by a collection of whirling wind mills. The area is home to 17 rare species, including the dark-eyed junco, the red-breasted nuthatch, timber rattlesnakes and even a few porcupines.

Located near the West Virginia border and out of sight and earshot of the major tourist centers of Garrett, the privately owned Synergics site is by no means virgin woodlands. Logging operations have been busy there for years, and at least one coal company conducts underground mining operations. Even so, the conditions wisely stipulate that Synergics avoid setting up turbines in two areas considered too pristine for development.

The conditions may end up being too restrictive for Synergics (it agreed to scale back its initial plan of 24 turbines), but they are sensible safeguards to ensure that in our pursuit for alternative energy, we don't swap green for clean.

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