Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Wind farm site on radar for Navy

ANNAPOLIS — A bill that would delay construction of a proposed electricity-generating windmill farm in Somerset County sends a bad message to clean energy companies looking to invest in Maryland, according to a coalition of environmental groups.

House Bill 1168, which was passed last week by the House of Delegates and is now in the Senate Finance Committee, highlights the conflict between supporters of wind-generated electricity and the effort to ensure that the Patuxent River Naval Air Base, which pumps billions of dollars into the state economy, can continue to operate within the state.

Tommy Landers, public policy director for the Chesapeake Climate Action Committee, said the bill is a “heavy-handed approach” to dealing with what he acknowledged were legitimate concerns about how the turbines may impact the use of a highly specialized radar system at the base. Additionally, renewable energy companies may think twice about projects in Maryland at a time when Gov. Martin J. O’Malley is pushing for more wind projects as part of his goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Maryland.

The governor’s plan calls for reducing peak energy consumption by 15 percent by the end of 2015 while requiring that 20 percent of energy used in the state be generated by renewable sources such as wind and solar.

“The bill sends the wrong message to wind energy companies that Maryland is not a safe place to invest,” Landers said.

Legislators from Southern Maryland are asking the General Assembly to approve legislation that prohibits a windmill of any size within 24 miles east of the base. Outside of 24 miles, the windmill can be 100 feet tall, and that height gradually increases to 700 feet at 49 miles from the base. The bill would also prohibit the Public Service Commission from issuing permits before June 30, 2015, for the 25 windmills that are part of the proposed Great Bay Wind Energy Center until studies can be completed on the effects on specialized radar equipment.

Del. John L. Bohannon Jr., D-St. Mary’s, said he and other Southern Maryland legislators want to make sure they have all the information before the project moves forward.

“It’s prudent to pause to make sure we get it right,” Bohannon said. “We’re just asking to make sure we know the full extent of the impact and proceed cautiously until we know the full extent of those impacts.

At issue is the height of the proposed windmills. At 600 feet tall, the turbines would be taller than the Washington Monument. The height and proximity to Patuxent River Naval Air Station would limit the effectiveness of a unique radar system used at the federal installation, according to a 2012 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study commissioned by the Navy.

Bohannon said the windmill project could move forward sooner if the company agreed to keep the height of the turbines at the proposed location at between 340 feet and 470 feet or move them farther east, where the line of sight for the radar would permit taller structures.

The station, which employs 22,000 military, civilian and contract employees, provides nearly $7.5 billion in economic impact to the state, Bohannon said.

The specialized technology, called the ADAMS radar system, is the only one of its kind. Bohannon said that if the windmills adversely affect the operation of the testing facility, which has contracts testing the Joint Strike Fighter, the Navy could move it to another state, and that would result in a loss of jobs.

Pioneer Green Energy wants to build a windmill farm that would generate 70 to 90 megawatts of electricity — enough to power about 45,000 homes. The project has been under development for about four years.

Representatives of Austin, Texas-based Pioneer Green Energy and the company’s Annapolis-based lobbyist did not return calls and emails seeking comment.

Developers of the windmill farm propose to allow the Navy the ability to turn off the turbines when the radar is in use, Landers said.

A second study, however, is now underway by MIT to determine if there are ways to mitigate the impact on the system. Bohannon said the Navy will not sign the draft agreement before that study is complete.

Additionally, the project will need federal approval for a bald eagle taking permit. The turbines, with blades more than 550 feet long, are expected to kill as many as 20 of the federally protected species annually — about one-third the annual kill quota allowed for the area that stretches from New York south to Virginia.