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After Years of Study, Power-Generating 'Wind Farms' on Horizon in State

By Rachael Jackson

Capital News Service
Friday, Dec. 3, 2004

WASHINGTON - After several years of research, hearings and lobbying, the first of several power-generating "wind farms" could begin rising this spring in Western Maryland, developers say.

The October renewal of a federal tax credit for wind-generated electricity was just the boost needed for companies to proceed on the projects, two of which have already received a state OK and a third of which is awaiting approval. A fourth site has been identified, but the permit application has not yet been filed.

"It's definitely heating up again very rapidly," said Kevin Rackstraw, the Eastern North America leader for one of the firms, Clipper Windpower. It has approval to build 67 electricity-producing turbines on Backbone Mountain in Garrett County.

The wind farm sites proposed in Western Maryland could have a combined peak output of 240 megawatts of renewable electricity -- enough to power as many as 70,000 homes -- without the nasty side effects that come with other generators, like air pollution or radioactive waste.

But not all environmentalists are pleased at the prospect of scores of turbines sprouting hundreds of feet into the air along mountain ridges near the West Virginia border.

"We don't have to have all our Appalachian ridges loaded up with industrial machines," said Dan Boone, a Bowie resident who says that not only are industrial wind farms unsightly, but they pose a threat to bats and birds.

Boone, along with the Sierra Club, the Audubon Naturalist Society and other activists, point to a study that said about 2,000 bats were killed last year at a wind farm just across the state border with West Virginia.

For that reason, they filed with the Maryland Public Service Commission to challenge Synergics Wind Energy's application for a wind farm permit for Backbone Mountain. The opponents said more study on the impact of turbines needs to be done.

But environmentalists like Mike Tidwell, president of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said the environmental effects of wind farms pale in comparison to coal-burning generators, which add to global warming and lead to acid rain that is killing trees on those same mountainsides.

Thousands of state residents appear to agree.

While official numbers are difficult to come by, Washington Gas Energy Services -- which serves parts of Maryland, Washington and Virginia -- said that about 10,000 of its customers have opted to spend a few cents more per kilowatt to buy power generated on wind farms in other states.

While it ranks among the cheapest of alternative energy sources, wind power still cannot compete economically with conventional power sources.

Wind power got a boost in May when Montgomery County required that its agencies buy a portion of their power from wind farms, making it the largest consumer of such power in the state. Wind farms could also profit under a state law, approved earlier this year, that will require that Maryland get at least 7.5 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2019.

Along with hydroelectric power, solar power and the burning of biomass -- such as animal waste -- wind power could help Americans decrease dependence on foreign oil and power from polluting sources, advocates say.

New Wind Energy, a company that distributes wind-generated electricity, estimates that an average residential customer who gets all of his or her power from wind will keep about 28 pounds of nitrogen oxides and 90 pounds of sulfur dioxide out of the air per year.

"I think people are making an affirmative choice," said Ransome Owan, director for regulatory and external affairs at WGES. "Some people are conscious that in this area the pollution rate is quite high."

Besides helping the state meet its 2019 goal of getting 7.5 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources, state energy officials also say the proposed Maryland wind farms will provide an economic benefit to areas where they are built.

Generators boast that wind farms can provide hundreds of construction jobs, as well as a few dozen long-term positions. The companies also pay landowners for the right to erect a wind farm: Clipper Windpower said it expects to pay $2,000 to $4,000 per year to farmers who let them build wind turbines on their land.

Garrett County Commission Chairman Ernest Gregg said the windfarms proposed for Western Maryland could generate $1 million in revenue for the county.

"It's significant for a county that has a budget of $52 million," he said, adding that eventually the coal mined in his county will run out. "We need to start making alternate plans for other types of energy."

Duane Yoder, president of the Garrett County Community Action Committee, said he expects most people in the area will welcome the wind farms.

"There's a very active group that's in opposition," said Yoder, who said he knows people on both sides of the debate. "But I think it's a vocal group that I don't think is reflective of the majority view."

In 2002, public opposition did scuttle plans for wind turbines off the Atlantic coast, after Ocean City officials balked at the fact that the turbines could be seen from the shore.

Winergy, the New York-based company that proposed that project, has developed a new design that will be farther offshore and out of sight, said company President Dennis Quaranta. He said the latest plan calls for two ocean sites that would each have about 175 wind turbines, although the company has not formalized its latest plan.

"We're not going away," Quaranta said.

But Gregg, who said he will be able to see the Clipper Windpower turbines from the front door of his home in Mountain Lake Park, does not expect any such concerns in Western Maryland. He said he has seen windmills in neighboring West Virginia and is not worried about their aesthetics.

"I think they look very graceful," he said.

Copyright 2004, 2005 and 2006 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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