The state Court of Appeals cleared a California energy company yesterday to build what would be Maryland's first windmill farm, a 42-turbine facility along Backbone Mountain in Garrett County.
The wind farm was approved by the Public Service Commission in 2003, though it was not built because the developer, Clipper Windpower Inc., initially was unable to induce utility companies to buy power from the facility.
The project now has utility customers and is expected to proceed.
The PSC's approval was challenged in court on environmental grounds. But in its ruling announced yesterday, the high court held that opposition groups represented by the plaintiff, Eric Tribbey, could not get their objection heard because they joined the PSC proceedings too late to participate in the public hearings on the wind farm.
"It's probably the law that they were late to participate, but miles and miles of the ridge top will be inundated with wind plants," said Robert DeGroot, head of the nonprofit Maryland Alliance for Greenway Improvement and Conservation.
The Backbone Mountain ridge is the state's highest and has winds strong enough to power the giant turbines. Environmentalists are concerned that the proposed 400-foot-tall windmills would kill birds and bats.
But those backing the wind farm see short supplies and high prices of power as greater problems to be addressed.
"It's not the answer to our energy needs, but it's a piece of the puzzle that will lessen our dependency on foreign oil," said Frederick A. Holliday, a Garrett County commissioner. "It will also be a great revenue source - $1 million a year in tax revenue for the county."
The turbines would generate 101 megawatts, enough to power 101,000 homes.
Constellation Energy, the merchant power company that also owns Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., is looking at the ruling carefully, spokesman Lawrence McDonnell said. He said if the company chose to buy power from Clipper it would be Constellation's first entry into wind power.
Constellation acquired the rights to jointly develop a Backbone Mountain wind farm with Florida's FPL Group, but the Maryland utility dropped out when the two companies broke off their merger agreement.
Building windmills, rather than obtaining wind power from outside suppliers, is not something he has heard discussed at Constellation headquarters, McDonnell said.
Garrett County Administrator Monty Pagenhardt said Clipper has lease agreements with all of the property owners in the wind farm.
"Different boards of county commissioners had continually supported the Clipper project since 2000, 2001," he said. "Some worry about a loss of property value, but I think a lot of the opponents haven't had a lot of the right information all of the time."
Tribbey and Clipper could not be reached for comment.