St. Mary’s County’s concern about plans for wind turbines on the Eastern Shore, and the impact they may have on radar testing at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, has reverberated 60 miles north to Annapolis and also made its way to Washington, D.C.
But with the same intensity, at the same time, the topic is polarizing residents of Somerset County, where the turbines would be built.
The concern in Southern Maryland is whether the turbines would stall critical Navy testing over the Chesapeake. On the Eastern Shore, the debate centers on whether 25 turbines, each about 50 feet taller than the Washington Monument, might change idyllic Somerset County for the benefit of a few landowners and a Texas-based company.
Those swept up in these concerns include engineers and farmers, rich and poor.
They include Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who last week vetoed a bill passed overwhelmingly by the state legislature that would have delayed the wind project for further study.
They also include Johnnie Ballard, who took a few moments to talk about the turbines Wednesday night while he was making chicken feed and troubleshooting a jammed machine.
“It’s all right with me. If it’s going to help the economy,” Ballard said by phone, the feed maker grinding in the background. When asked if he would want one of the windmills next to the home he rents in Princess Anne, he said, it all depends on whether it generated any noise. But, Ballard said, before returning to his work, “it wouldn’t bother me if I just ride down the road and look at it.”
“I’m not very happy about them, I’ll tell you that,” said Karen Tremper, who owns a 100-acre farm in Marion Station and also has a logistics job at Fort Meade.
“The fact that they’re so tall and so intrusive. Our zoning board is not saying where they can be placed,” Tremper said. “They’re going to tear up our roads, put these monsters up, kill our wildlife, make our lives miserable. And then, they’re going to charge us for electricity.”
She cited those who have visited Somerset, warning this is “the least efficient way to generate energy.” She’s read about turbines catching fire, as they have in places as far as the Netherlands and as close as Benton, Ind. “If crops are ready, it would burn them to the ground.”
She’s been part of a grass-roots effort to get more people to sway to her side of the debate. “We’ve been out knocking on doors and talking to people,” she said. She’s even ready to stage a sit-in if details don’t become clearer. The wind company picked the location for the turbine project and stands to make “big money,” Tremper said, partly because Somerset had a jobless rate that hung stagnant at 10 percent from 2010 through 2013, according to state records. “We were easy pickin’s,” she said.
“So, you look at a county like Somerset, the poorest in Maryland,” said Adam Cohen, vice president of Pioneer Green, the company that is planning to build the turbines. “This is a $200 million investment. You see how it can transform the local community and Maryland in general.”
State law requires that utilities purchase 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2022. The windmill project is not only helping Maryland reach that goal, it would put 700 people to work, from truck drivers, surveyors and wetlands experts to hospitality and restaurant workers, generating revenue for schools and roads, Cohen said. He expects 15 to 20 permanent jobs maintaining the windmill.
In Southern Maryland, the concern is that the project could put thousands of high-tech jobs at Pax River in jeopardy, if tests are delayed and military work slowly moves to places where civilian encroachment is less of an issue.
“Our report is available publicly,” Cohen said, and his company has been working with the Navy to find a solution.
Lt. Richlyn Ivey, with the Chief of Naval Information office in Virginia, said by phone Tuesday that “we continue to work with representatives from Pioneer Green.” The goal, she said, is to address “relevant issues” and finalize an agreement.
Ivey also said that for more than a year, the Navy has worked with the company to craft an agreement that would require Pioneer Green to stop operations when certain tests are done at Pax River.
Some Pax River proponents in industry have said the Navy is only following executive orders to push green energy, even if those solutions aren’t ideal.
“It’s just another widget that you’ve got to go through to conduct work at this facility,” Greg Gillingham, a test engineer manager and representative of the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance, said Tuesday. “Anybody who’s close to this stuff will tell you that it’s got impacts.”
“Certainly, our [state legislative] delegation understood it,” he said, referring to a 31-16 vote in the Senate and a 112-22 vote in the House to delay the windmill project until a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is complete. It was that bill, which would essentially scuttle Pioneer Green’s plans, that O’Malley vetoed Friday. The governor said in a letter to the speaker of the House of Delegates that he cared about the base, but its biggest threat was rising sea levels brought on by climate change.
“Basically, it came down to they thought the Navy would feel like they weren’t appreciated,” Kevin Miller, a Somerset farmer, said about those who have opposed the windmills. “Well, send the Secretary of the Navy a Christmas card. Don’t kill a $200 million project.
“I think people made up their minds to be against it before they ever looked at the facts,” said Miller, who also said he signed a lease agreement with Pioneer Green.
“The governor did his research,” Cohen said. He said the agreement his company has drafted with the Navy says if turbines aren’t shut off at appropriate times, up to about 1,500 hours a year, Pioneer Green would lose its right to operate.
The wind also doesn’t blow every day, Cohen said. “There are times we won’t be spinning and they’ll be testing … You can have a win-win.” That’s the way Miller sees it as well.
Several other farmers were called Wednesday evening, with just a hint of light left in the sky. They were still in the fields planting or spraying crops. Politely, they or their wives said they were too busy to talk. By the time Miller was reached, it had begun to rain and he took a bit of time to explain things, from his perspective.
The windmills don’t bother him. “They’re not in the middle of town,” he said. He’s been told they have to be at least 1,000 feet away from a dwelling. And, he said, “I think they’re a lot prettier than a cellphone tower to look at.” His homestead, according to a Somerset agricultural census, is nearly double the county’s average 180-acre farm. Mostly, Miller grows corn, beans, wheat and barley that end up going to the poultry industry. And Pioneer Green, Miller said, has been sending him money for the past couple of years. “They started sending checks when I signed the lease.”
Looking out his front door, Miller said he can see fields with corn now sprouting about an inch high and sprawling 125 acres into the distance. He wouldn’t say how much Pioneer Green was paying him. But he did say, “it’s much more than I make farming.” And that amount would increase if and when electricity is finally generated.
He’s a businessman, whose son didn’t get the calling to farm like Miller did, along with Miller’s father, and grandfather. And in about 10 or 15 years, he wants to slow down a bit. “Then that would definitely be retirement income,” Miller said.
“Farmers have to make decisions,” he said. “You’re always trying to plan ahead. You’re always looking for ways to diversify. Those options are very limited for agriculture anymore.”