A New Jersey-based company wants to build about 150 wind turbines, each more than 40 stories tall, in the Atlantic Ocean 12 miles from the tourist-packed beaches of Ocean City.
Bluewater Wind proposed a similar project last year off Delaware, which could be the nation's first offshore wind farm if it receives state and federal approvals.
The developers presented the broad outlines of their concept for Maryland's coast yesterday during a closed-door meeting with members of the state Public Service Commission. No written proposal has been submitted, but company officials said a wind farm would cost about $1.6 billion.
The firm has also met with Gov. Martin O'Malley's office and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which has started studying the potential impact on birds and fish.
Peter D. Mandelstam, president of Bluewater Wind, said the 404-foot-tall turbines would be small but visible from Ocean City's beaches, although hard to see in a summer haze.
"On a perfectly clear day, they will be appear to be half the size of your thumbnail and the thickness of a toothpick," said Mandelstam, whose company is owned by Babcock & Brown, an Australian investment bank and wind power developer.
He said Ocean City's millions of beach-goers wouldn't be able to hear the whirling blades, and the impact on migrating birds would be minimal. The wind turbines could churn out enough electricity for 110,000 homes without any of the greenhouse gas pollution that contributes to global warming, Mandelstam said.
The project would be subject to approval by the U.S. Department of the Interior because the turbines would be in federal waters. And approval would be needed from Maryland agencies to bring power cables ashore.
"It's an intriguing idea, and we look forward to learning more about the project," said O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese.
Backed by federal subsidies, wind farms have been popping up across the U.S. in recent years - although the nation's electricity supply from wind remains less than 1 percent of the total.
Most wind farms have been built in the wide-open farmland of the Midwest. Some have also been built in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and two have been proposed for Western Maryland. No wind farms have been built off America's coasts, but Bluewater and other firms have proposed them in New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Ocean City residents expressed mixed feelings about the proposed project yesterday. Some applauded the idea of alternative energy; others objected to industrial-looking whirligigs marring romantic sunrises that are part of the city's appeal to tourists.
"We realize the need for energy and for clean energy, so it's something the City Council would like to hear about and be briefed on," said Mayor Rick Meehan. "We have concerns on how it affects the environment and migratory birds, as well as the visual impact."
Lou Gerachis, owner of Malibu's Surf Shop on the Boardwalk, said he suspects most surfers and beach-goers would oppose the giant construction project.
"I would not be for anything I could permanently see off the coastline here - we have a beautiful beach and a gorgeous view," said Gerachis. "You would definitely see it at sunrise, and I don't think we should have something that affects the aesthetics of nature like that."
Vicki Barrett, president of the Boardwalk Development Association, a merchants group, said a different developer proposed an offshore wind farm about five years ago, but that was rejected by the city. "I think the times have changed since then, and I think the community would be more receptive to it now," said Barrett, owner of a waterfront bed-and-breakfast. "I think we've got to do something about our energy crisis, and I think wind turbines are quite beautiful - almost sculptural."
A well-publicized battle continues between offshore wind developers and waterfront homeowners in Nantucket Sound. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose family has a summer home in Cape Cod, is among the opponents of the Cape Wind Project, which would be closer to shore than the one proposed in Maryland.
Maryland gets more than half of its electricity from coal-fired power plants, which emit carbon dioxide pollution that contributes to global warming, said Mike Tidwell, founder of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
"Increasingly, Marylanders are aware that sea level rise from global warming spells really big problems for our coastline, including Ocean City," he said. "We can either do nothing, and watch 3 to 20 feet of water destroy everything in Ocean City. Or we can join states across America and countries around the world in switching to clean, renewable energy."
Maryland passed a law three years ago requiring power companies here to buy 7.5 percent of their electricity from wind, solar, hydroelectric or other alternative sources by 2018. Now, the state receives about 1 percent of its energy from these clean sources.