Fast-track plan likely in for slow pace

March 12, 2009|By JEAN MARBELLA

In a typically airless conference room in downtown Baltimore yesterday, the Public Service Commission fast-tracked a proposal for a wind farm in Western Maryland. "Fast," though, is a relative term given that developers have as long as three years to start construction and five for the first turbine to actually start harnessing those mountain breezes and turning them into electricity.

But maybe the developers will need all that time, given that Maryland remains one of the relatively few states - 16 of them - that even at a time of great interest in clean, renewable sources of energy have no commercial wind farms in operation.

It may remain that way, though, if opponents of the wind farm, which would erect 29 turbines atop Dan's Mountain outside Frostburg in Allegany County, have their way. They have fought the proposal for years now, claiming the towering windmills will destroy their mountain vistas - never mind that these mountains have previously been mined and logged - and prove to be noisy and dangerous to wildlife.

"You see pictures of them, and they look like you're in La La Land," says John Bambacus, a former state senator who lives in Frostburg. "But these are industrial machines."

Opposition has proved vocal and impassioned. One detractor hung up on me when I called yesterday, saying he didn't want to talk to someone who had written a column saying wind power was better than nuclear power. (For the record, I actually just noted that nuclear power had reversed its image from frightening to benign in the years since Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and that wind power was now the energy boogeyman that you didn't want in your backyard.)

It's not just Western Maryland, of course - most famously, Cape Cod residents have bucked a proposed wind farm off their coast, claiming the same view-damaging, bird-killing reasons.

But at the same time, both Annapolis and Washington have launched big, incentive-laden pushes to develop renewable sources of energy lately. Gov. Martin O'Malley got a bill passed by the General Assembly last year to require power companies to buy 20 percent of their electricity from alternative energy sources by 2022, and President Barack Obama has made investment in renewable energy a major part of his economic recovery plan.

Where, though, to put turbines that in some cases would be nearly as tall as the Washington Monument? That's where the NIMBY part comes in. "It's the aesthetics - either you like them or you don't," said Tom Matthews, president of U.S. Wind Force, which yesterday got the go-ahead from the PSC for its Dan's Mountain project. "It can be frustrating."

The wind turbines I've seen, in California, don't strike me as objectionable, but they were at a farther distance from where people lived or traveled than those proposed for Dan's Mountain. I also think the ones that have been proposed off the coast of Rehoboth Beach, with the prospect of perhaps being extended down to Ocean City, also seem far enough from shore that they wouldn't be such looming eyesores.

U.S. Wind Force told commissioners yesterday that it had commissioned an environmental review that concluded that the turbines wouldn't exceed noise regulations and that they would be far enough away from the nearest residents to avoid sound and sight problems. While no area residents appeared at the PSC meeting to voice opposition, in the past they have said that visits to similar wind farms in nearby West Virginia and Pennsylvania have shown that the turbines are noisy and disrupt mountain views. "I can drive a half-mile from my house," Bambacus said, "and see wind turbines in Pennsylvania that are 20 miles away."

Bambacus also disputes the fast-track process by which the PSC approved the Dan's Mountain project. In 2007, the legislature exempted such companies from extensive environmental review of proposals that would generate less than 70 megawatts of power. The law was passed after Wayne Rogers, a well-connected, onetime Maryland Democratic Party chairman, ran into problems getting his own wind farm proposal approved.

"This is a classic example of the PSC totally deregulating a major energy provider," Bambacus said, adding that the process eliminates safeguards for nearby residents and wildlife.

U.S. Wind Force still has to get local permits from Allegany County before construction can begin; officials there had refused those permits until the PSC took action. Then there are the usual uncertainties of the economy that have slowed other projects.

Wind is never going to be a major source of energy, although with all the incentives available to renewable energy sources, it is a growing one. In 2007, wind energy made up 30 percent of the new power that was generated. U.S. Wind Force says that once its Dan's Mountain farm is up and running, it could provide electricity for as many as 13,000 homes.

Bambacus said the wind industry tends to promise more than it can deliver and, in any event, the question needs to be, at what cost?

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