A Pennsylvania company is asking the O’Malley administration for leases in two Western Maryland state forests so it can clear up to 400 mountaintop acres to build about 100 wind turbines.
The U.S. Wind Force structures would be about 40 stories tall and visible from some of the region’s most popular tourist areas, including Deep Creek Lake and the Savage River Reservoir.
The projects in the Potomac and Savage River state forests would cost $400 million and would generate enough pollution-free electricity for about 55,000 homes, said David F. McAnally, chairman of the company.
“It would be a good thing from the standpoint of environmental benefits. There are no emissions at all from wind turbines, so this will help Maryland with clean air,” McAnally said.
Not all environmentalists agree that scenic public lands should be used for industrial machines.
“The idea of destroying the Appalachian ridge tops for such a little bit of energy capacity doesn’t make any sense to me,” said Ajax Eastman, a conservationist from Baltimore.
The proposal to lease about 400 acres for $30 million to $40 million a year would have to be approved by Gov. Martin O’Malley and the other two members of the state Board of Public Works.
Company officials said they’ve met three times with O’Malley over the past four months. O’Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said yesterday that the governor has not made a decision on the question of allowing wind farms on public lands. State Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, the other two members of the state board, were not available for comment.
“The governor is supportive of finding alternative energy sources, including wind, and he has met with a number of wind power companies,” Abbruzzese said. “On public land, I think the governor would defer and wait for the public to have an opportunity to weigh in.”
The state Department of Natural Resources plans to hold meetings in Garrett County and Annapolis next month to hear from the public on the question, said John R. Griffin, the agency’s secretary. Then, if the state decides to move ahead with leases, it would ask for competitive bidding from a number of wind companies, not just U.S. Wind Force, which started talking to the department about two years ago, Griffin said.
Four companies are seeking to build wind farms in Maryland, including two other developers in the western part of the state. A New Jersey firm is proposing 150 turbines in the Atlantic off Ocean City.
The projects have sparked intense debate, with some critics worried that the huge industrial machines will hurt the tourism appeal of the state’s mountains and beach areas.
Paulette Hammond, president of the Maryland Conservation Council, said her group opposes using state forests for the profit of private business.
Hammond said it’s not worth permanently destroying public lands for a source of power that is too feeble and intermittent to stop global warming.
“This would denude some very valuable forest tree canopy … and wouldn’t provide nearly the amount of energy we’ll need,” Hammond said of the U.S. Wind Force proposal.
Dan Boone, a former state wildlife biologist who has been fighting wind farms in Western Maryland, said the Savage River and Potomac state forests contain rare old-growth trees and threatened species.
“You are talking about taking one of the most spectacular scenic overlooks in Maryland and industrializing it,” Boone said of a proposed site on Meadow Mountain in the Savage River forest. “It would be a real tragedy to take state lands and convert them into an industrial theme park for U.S. Wind Force.”
On the other side, many local politicians support the proposal. The 21 members of Western Maryland’s delegation in the General Assembly, led by Del. Robert A. McKee, a Republican from Washington County, sent O’Malley a letter Oct. 1 praising the project. They said the construction “will provide economic opportunity for the region” and “a safe, clean, renewable reliable, domestic source of power.”
Mike Tidwell, an author and climate change activist, also supports the project. So does Frederick A. Holliday, a Garrett County commissioner who represents an area where several turbines would be built. He said he doesn’t think windmills would drive away tourists.
“I don’t think there could be anything cleaner,” said Holliday. “And the price of wind is always the same, zip.”
U.S. Wind Force, based outside of Pittsburgh, has signed an agreement with the Edison Mission Group, part of a large California utility, which would own and operate the wind farms. U.S. Wind Force is proposing a total of five wind farms in Western Maryland, including three on private land, that would include 160 to 200 wind turbines in total. Most of these projects still need state approvals.
McAnally said the two wind farms on public land would rise in areas where trees are sometimes cut by logging companies. Many of these ridge tops have also been defoliated by gypsy moths recently, he said.
The 40- to 50-turbine Backbone Mountain project would be visible from both Deep Creek Lake and the Savage River Reservoir, which is popular for fishing, camping and hiking. The 50- to 60-turbine Meadow Mountain project would be visible from Interstate 68 near Grantsville.
“There will be some folks who don’t want to see them,” McAnally said. “But I believe the majority of folks who see them will find them majestic and a symbol of clean energy.”
By Tom Pelton | Sun reporter
6 December 2007
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