Greg Gillingham feels there is a misunderstanding about one of the biggest concerns facing St. Mary’s County.
He doesn’t have a problem with renewable energy. He’s not against wind turbines. But Gillingham, and the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance he serves, just say those turbines shouldn’t be underneath the Navy’s protected airspace on the Eastern Shore.
Pioneer Green wants to build 25 turbines in Somerset County. The company says it’s possible to turn those windmills off when the Navy needs to conduct radar testing.
But it’s not that simple, Gillingham said. Some programs, such as the Joint Strike Fighter, F-35 jets, cost millions of dollars a day. Those programs are operating at Patuxent River Naval Air Station to conduct aircraft tests that, in the long run, help save lives of pilots and air crews. They also employ thousands of people in the region.
Even short-term delays in those testing schedules, as windmills are running, would, in turn, cost taxpayers many millions of dollars, he said.
“It would be death by 1,000 cuts,” said St. Mary’s County Commissioner Todd Morgan (R). If the military can’t operate its aircraft testing programs at Pax River without interference by civilian activities, he worries that the Navy slowly, and perhaps quietly, would begin moving work and related jobs at Pax River elsewhere. Pax River employs more than 20,000 people directly, and thousands more jobs from restaurants to doctors’ offices and home building firms now depend largely on the base’s presence. The Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development estimates that Pax River contributes $7.5 billion a year to Maryland’s economy.
But that economic boon could begin to wither, Gillingham said. “Programs aren’t going to come to communities where they can’t meet their program schedules,” he said. “These are huge dollars we’re talking about, compared to we’ll let Somerset have their  wind turbines.”
“There isn’t anybody in Southern Maryland who isn’t impacted by the base,” said Sen. Roy Dyson (D-Calvert, Charles, St. Mary’s). “I think everyone should write the governor a letter.
“I’m sitting here in Great Mills,” Dyson said as an airplane rumbled overhead. “Can you hear that? It would be a shame if the so-called bay wind project took that away.”
Navy officials here aren’t expected to publicly sound off on the issue. However, the Navy has issued reports that seem to support Gillingham’s and Morgan’s claims.
One, the 2014 Report to Congress on Sustainable Ranges, submitted by the Department of Defense’s head of personnel and readiness, says “proposed renewable energy development near Naval Air Weapons Center (NAWC) Patuxent River, Md.,” is one of its greatest concerns.
The report largely focuses on encroachment – changes in a surrounding environment that make it difficult for the military to accomplish its missions. And, the issue has spanned a broad spectrum, from homes being built along Navy flight paths in Virginia Beach, Va., to a push to protect ground squirrels in Washington state.
Maryland House Bill 1168 was drafted to delay the Somerset County wind turbines for 13 months to allow Pax River to work with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study the potential impact that those turbines on the Eastern Shore could have on Pax River’s aircraft testing over the Chesapeake Bay. It passed the Senate and House by large margins.
“We’ve always been pretty vigilant in protecting Patuxent River,” said Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s), who with all of the other state legislators representing the region backed the bill. “It’s our economic engine.”
But since the bill passed there has been a push from environmentalists, and now the state comptroller, for Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) to veto it. Nina Smith, a spokesperson for the governor, said this week the governor has not yet made a decision on whether to sign, veto or merely let the bill take effect without his signature.
The military, however, is clear in its range sustainability report. “The Navy’s successful engagement with civil and commercial interests relies on detailed proposal descriptions, open discussions of specific military operational limitations, and an iterative process with energy stakeholders such that actionable feedback is generated for both parties,” according to the range sustainability report. “The more detailed and complete the energy proposal from commercial developers, the more accurate and comprehensive the Navy’s impact assessment. While the Navy has had success with wind farm developers near Naval Air Station (NAS) Kingsville and NAS Corpus Christi, mitigation of the effects to readiness may not always be possible. Proposed renewable energy development near Navy facilities at Patuxent River, Md., … could cause significant degradation to the Navy mission, and it is unclear if mitigation efforts will eliminate the potential impacts to Navy readiness.”
The report says the Navy will take necessary steps to protect its interests, which some here fear means relocating jobs. “The test range is truly the part that we need to preserve,” said Gillingham, who’s the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance lead on dealing with encroachment issues. He’s also a defense contractor, supporting Pax River, and has spent 40 years testing and evaluating aircraft systems.
“Without the ability to do in-flight testing, this place would not be in existence,” he said of Pax River.
The problem is not that Navy aircraft cannot operate in the face of wind turbines, he said. The issue is that the type of testing that needs to be done, in some cases to determine the stealth of certain aircraft and protect American interests against enemy forces, would be impossible to execute.
If you have a pilot going into Baghdad, “how close could it get before Baghdad’s radars would have picked it up?” he asked. “How close did it get before you need to start worrying?”
The ability to take measurements for those tests could easily be affected by changes in frequency created by large windmills, Gillingham said. “The environment needs to be pristine.”