Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and other leading Democrats are sponsoring a bill that would cut back the state’s environmental review of proposals to build large wind turbines.
Supporters of the bill include wind energy developer Wayne Rogers, former chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, whose proposal to build up to 20 turbines in Garrett County has drawn objections from the state Department of Natural Resources.
Opponents of a streamlined permit process worry that it would eliminate the public hearings now required before developers can clear forested mountaintops to build 40-story turbines that mar scenic views.
Rogers and others say the state needs to speed up its approval process because neighboring Pennsylvania and West Virginia are creating pollution-free wind energy, but Maryland is not. Proposals to build more than 70 turbines in Western Maryland – including Rogers’ project on Backbone Mountain – have failed to get off the ground.
“The conclusion that wind isn’t working in Maryland is not a Wayne Rogers issue,” said Rogers, chairman of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s transition committee on energy issues.
“Hundreds of companies around the world are investing billions of dollars in wind, but not in Maryland,” Rogers said. “You could say this is a political issue, but I would say this is an environmental issue for us as a state. We are lagging in the area of renewable energy.”
Global warming activists back the bill, saying the state needs to encourage the generation of electricity that doesn’t produce greenhouse gases.
“There is a large constituency of environmentally minded Marylanders that want to see wind power developed in this state,” Mike Tidwell, an author and director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, told the Senate Finance Committee.
Miller, who has sponsored the bill with Finance Committee Chairman Thomas M. Middleton and others, said the measure is consistent with recent state efforts to encourage renewable energy through tax credits and grants. “The General Assembly has done quite a bit to encourage the production and use of clean and renewable energy,” Miller said in written testimony.
Against the exemption are the DNR, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Maryland Conservation Council, the Baltimore Bird Club and other conservation groups. Some critics say that poorly placed turbines could kill birds and bats.
“The exemption [from current reviews] of an entire class of energy generation, regardless of size, location or environmental impact, is not the way for Maryland to promote alternative energies,” the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said in written testimony opposing the bill.
Peter M. Dunbar, director of the power plant research program at the natural resources agency, warned that the exemption could mean developers could build hundreds of wind turbines in the Chesapeake Bay without adequate state or public review.
“The big point is these projects are not particularly environmentally benign,” said Dunbar. “Wind turbines are large, over 400 feet in height, and they require a substantial foundation to be built. … You could have severe impacts on habitat, and impacts that are permanent.”
The bill would narrow the scope of what the Maryland Public Service Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, reviews before it approves wind turbines. It would speed up the review process by several months, and eliminate the requirements for public hearings. Rogers said lawmakers might amend the bill to add hearings.
A commission hearing examiner this fall recommended approval of a permit for Rogers’ company, Synergics Wind Energy LLC, to build turbines on the along the Backbone Mountain range. But the examiner included several conditions recommended by the Department of Natural Resources, including barring construction on part of the land that is habitat for rare species, including the mourning warbler and the Allegheny woodrat. Rogers has appealed these limits, saying they could make his project impractical.
If the bill passes and eliminates such state wildlife review, Rogers could abandon his old application and re-apply under the new streamlined system, said Susan Stevens Miller, general counsel for the commission.
Wind energy proposals in Maryland today must get the same permits from the PSC that large coal-fired power plants and most other generators must obtain, called “certificates of public convenience and necessity.”
The commission’s review, which generally takes about seven months, is coordinated by the DNR, which examines the environmental and visual impact of turbine construction.
The agency, working with other state departments, looks at whether birds, bats or endangered species would be hurt by construction; how many acres of forest would have to be cut down for roads and turbine bases; and how the machines would affect the scenery, among other subjects. The state agency proposes conditions to the permits to limit impact on natural habitat, and the commission holds two sets of public hearings.
Under the proposed bill, this broad review by the state would be eliminated, and wind turbines would be exempted from the requirement to get the power plant certificates, said Dunbar.
Instead, the Public Service Commission would examine the narrower issue of whether the electricity transmission system can safely and reliably handle the current generated by the turbines, Stevens Miller said. This review would take only about two months, and would not include any environmental or aesthetic review, she said. Local building permits would still be required.
“It will be much more streamlined,” Stevens Miller said of the state review under the proposed legislation. “There wouldn’t be any review of wildlife impact.”
The commission allows similarly limited reviews for backup generators used by hospitals and other businesses in emergencies.
By Tom Pelton
10 March 2007
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