ANNAPOLIS – Legislation that would essentially kill a wind turbine project in Somerset County moved one step closer to becoming law Monday.
The House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly to put height restrictions on wind turbines at varying distances from the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Southern Maryland. Moving to the Senate side, environmental groups and opponents of the bill plan to meet with members of the Senate finance committee. Talks could also begin with the governor’s office.
The proposed Great Bay wind project in Somerset County would fall into a region where turbines taller than a few hundred feet are prohibited.
Although the bill would only delay the project for about 13 months until a study can be completed, Adam Cohen, vice president and founder of Pioneer Green Energy, which is developing the Somerset County project, said it kills the project.
“During the last four years we’ve been working in good faith with Pax River and the governor in designing and building a project, in making sure the Navy is protected and we reached an agreement,” Cohen said. “A bill to just kill our project and deprive the poorest county in Maryland of a $200 million investment doesn’t seem to be a solution.”
The 13 months the sponsors of the bill say is needed to conduct a study is irrelevant, Cohen said. The study would look at impacts of having the turbines run while the Navy conducts tests.
House Bill 1168 would prevent the state from approving construction of wind turbines that exceed a range of heights within the Atlantic Test Range used by the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. If approved by the Senate, the legislation would suspend construction of the 70-megawatt Great Bay wind project in Somerset County.
The legislation would take effect June 1, 2014, and end June 30, 2015, because of a study underway by Lincoln Laboratories at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to mitigate some of the problems with how the radar system interacts with wind turbines.
Members of the southern Maryland delegation, which sponsored the bill, said the Somerset turbines, which have not yet been constructed, could cause job losses in and around the naval air station.
“We have folks in the community who are looking at potential job loss if this goes through,” Delegate John Bohanan Jr., D-29B-St. Mary’s, said during the hearing. “Not just in the hundreds, but the thousands if it goes through – it’s that critical.”
The proposed wind project would also put bald eagles at risk if it is approved for take permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“U.S. Fish and Wildlife indicates this would be the largest eagle kill in the country at 15 to 18 birds,” Bohanan said at the hearing. “The allocation they need to apply for is actually 20.”
Developers have a preliminary agreement with the Navy to turn off the wind turbines when needed. It would require the company to turn the turbines off for between 950 and 1,500 hours annually.
It doesn’t appear that was enough reassurance for many Maryland lawmakers, who cited concerns about national security issues that could not be discussed in an open forum.
Delegate Norman Conway, D-38B-Wicomico, voted in favor of the bill. He said he supports the wind turbine project, but believes there can be a way to work out the differences between the Navy and wind project developers.
“Just as Pax River is important to Southern Maryland, we want every chance we can get to have a good industrial base for the Lower Shore counties,” Conway said. “It looks like, at this point, we’re going to have tolook in some other directions.”
The project’s apparent demise wouldn’t bode well for Somerset County, though.
Throughout the life of the wind turbines, Somerset expected to collect about $40 million in revenue form taxes. For one of the poorest counties in the state, that represents a sizable amount of money.
About 200 landowners have signed lease agreements with the company. During the first phase, 25 wind turbines would be built. The remaining lease holders would receive community rent.
Despite the vote, Delegate Charles Otto, R-38A-Somerset, said he’s optimistic the bill can be salvaged in the Senate.
“There isn’t that much time left in session, so it’s possible it could get snagged in there for a while,” Otto said. “I haven’t given up that we’ll be successful.”