For the Eastern Shore and Maryland as a whole, alternative energy is no longer a subject talked about in the context of the distant future, it’s now a mandated certainty.
The initiative is headed by Gov. Martin O’Malley, who mandated that at least 20 percent of Maryland’s electricity be generated through renewable energy sources by 2022.
Maryland’s Renewable Portfolio Standard puts the onus on counties and municipalities to start investing in and developing their own alternative energy projects.
Four years after the mandate was put into place, Somerset, Worcester and Wicomico counties have just begun to adopt larger alternative energy solutions and the counties themselves have begun to follow suit.
One of the main benefits to investing in alternative energy is reducing electrical costs for municipalities and counties. With budgetary spending still tight throughout the region, the ability to cut down on costs has enticed some municipalities to invest in wind and solar energy now rather than later.
In Wicomico County, the County Council is currently reviewing a proposal for a nearly 11,000 solar panel project that was touted as one that could bring the county’s electricity costs down by at least half, saving an estimated $162,000 per year.
Proposed by Public Works Director Lee Beauchamp in August, the two-site project would work as part of a power purchase agreement with SolarCity and has the potential to generate 100 percent of the county’s energy.
Council was generally receptive to the idea, open to the idea the county could drastically cut into its electricity costs while SolarCity foots the bill for the installation and maintenance of the panels. It’s a sentiment that’s being mirrored by the county executive’s office as well.
County Administrator Wayne Strausburg emphasized that Wicomico has an innate need to begin adopting alternative energy sooner rather than later.
“We’re trying to get ahead of the curve so that we can sustain our energy needs at much lower costs long-term, but also in a more environmentally friendly way,” said Strausburg. “It’s critically important from a financial standpoint. We aren’t being diligent if we’re relying on old technology to carry us in the future.”
Beauchamp said the agreement would allow the county to avoid so-called “elevator rates,” or increasing costs on electricity, with the deal as SolarCity would be locked in a 4.5 cent per kilowatt rate for the next 20 years if the project is approved by the County Council.
He added that with the fixed rate, the county “will really be able to forecast what our energy demands are going to be” more consistently.
And in Worcester County, Pocomoke City has entered an agreement with Standard Solar LLC and Sun Edison Co. for an appoximately 6,300 solar panel project to produce 2.1 megawatts of electricity a day.
Similar to Wicomico County’s larger project, City Manager Russell Blake said the project will generate all of the city’s electricity when completed and is expected to save Pocomoke $40,000 in electricity costs, along with the electricity of a handful of non-profit organizations who will also participate in the agreement.
The 20-year power purchase agreement with Sun Edison will put the financial burden on the company rather than the city, requiring they provide the funding to Standard Solar, who will contract the construction, operation and maintainenance of the solar array.
Part of the agreement also locks in the company’s electricity rates for the 20-year life of the agreement, with an “escalator clause” which calls for a fixed 1 percent increase year over year.
“Actually, when Standard Solar first approached the city, that was one of the selling points they offered immediately,” said Blake.
Designated as the largest municipally owned solar project in the state, Blake said when the companies reached out to the city about the project, officials saw it “win-win for the city,” one that would reduce yearly city electricity costs without needing any capital up front to finance the project.
Those saving have found their way into Somerset County as well, where a 750-kilowatt wind turbine at the end of Dixon Street is expected to save the city of Crisfield between $150,000 to $200,000 a year in electrical costs once completed. The project was funded by a mix of state and federal grants totaling $4.1 million with a $400,000 match from the city.
While the city could make its money back within the first two years if estimates are correct, Mayor Kim Lawson said the financial gain was not the main reason why he supported it.
“It just is the right thing to do for a lot of reasons,” said Lawson. “Especially if we’re going to be a state that’s going to be so heavily regulated on our impact on the Chesapeake Bay.”
The turbine is expected to generate more than enough energy to power the city’s sewage treatment plant and the city can sell any excess electricity generated by the turbine can be sold back to the grid.
While the three counties see the immediate and long-term financial benefits to investing in alternative energy along with the obvious wont to reduce the region’s greenhouse gases and carbon footprint, county officials realize the region also faces a unique set of concerns about how it will effect the agricultural and wildlife landscapes.
One of the more unique problems for the region when it comes to wind energy is its effect on the area’s birds and other winged wildlife.
This was no more evident than when Ryan Taylor, a bioacoustic expert and professor at Salisbury University, posed the question as to whether the proposed 25-wind turbine project by Pioneer Green Energy in Somerset County would begin to kill an unusual ally in the world of farming: bats.
Bats feed on insects that destroy crops and pollinate plants during the late evening hours. The Bat Conservation International of Austin, Texas, estimates that the value of bats to U.S. agriculture is at least $3.7 billion.
In a study published by the university of Colorado, Denver, an estimated 600,000 of the winged creatures were killed by wind turbines last year alone as a result of internal hemorrhaging in the bats caused by drops in atmospheric pressure brought about by the turbines’ blades.
Taylor harped on this point, saying the turbines could effect farmers in the area in ways they might not expect.
“Bats help farmers for pest management,” said Taylor, pointing toward Pioneer Green’s filing that the turbines could be as high as 599 feet.
“As turbines get taller, they kill more bats. So that puts the pest management burden back on the farmers,” said Taylor.
Another nationally protected frequent flyer along the Eastern Shore could also be effected by alternative energy projects, the bald eagle.
In Dec. 2013, the Obama administration granted industrial wind farm operators 30-year permits to kill bald eagles and golden eagles without fear of legal repercussions.
With reports of solar farms in California’s Mojave Desert killing up to 28,000 birds per year with 459 “power towers,” some have become concerned the push for alternative energy has come at the expense of one of the country’s most iconic birds.
Truitt has argued that Pioneer Green has not done enough to ensure the bird’s safety in Somerset County.
“To date, no industrial wind project in the United States has required a bald eagle take permit, yet this project is still being considered,” said Truitt.
Harris counters Pioneer Green is working on an eagle conservation plan, flying to known migration spots to find eagles nests and draft blueprints to set the turbines back away from the nests accordingly.
He added there was an increased need to move the project away from the Pocomoke River and Chesapeake Bay as to not disturb areas where the birds are known to fish.
“We’ve actually shrunk the project size more than half in order to avoid those specific areas,” said Harris.
But perhaps the most common among all the projects was the esthetical changes the projects would have on the rural communities.
After the initial passing of the Ocean City law allowing for residential wind turbines, the first backyard wind turbine project stalled soon after among concerns from nearby neighbors that noise generated from the turbines would be more noticable in the densely populated region.
While the first roof mounted turbines were installed on an Atlantic Avenue home in Dec. 2013, Somerset and Wicomico counties have expressed concerns that the large turbines could take away from the rural esthetic the region is used to.
Somerset County Planning Commission member Carol Samus pointed to a radio tower outside of a Maryland State Police barrack outside of Princess Anne, saying she can see the tower from far away and should serve as a cautionary tale for large structures taking away from the area’s rural aesthetic.
“The one at the state police barrack outside of Princess Anne … (the tower’s) total height is 330 feet,” said Samus. “600-foot turbines above our 100 foot tree line are certainly going to show.”
It’s a sentiment also expressed by Strausburg, who said he would expect county residents to express concerns about the county’s rural aesthetic.
“To be honest with you, I wouldn’t want my next door neighbor to have a wind turbine,” said Strausburg.
“The county is very, by and large, rural, agricultural in nature and I think most people would like it to stay that way,” he continued. “And I’m not sure wind farms, how well that integrates into that image that folks have as to what they want their county to look and feel like.”
Energy Generation Projections:
Wicomico County Solar Farms: 14 megawatts per year
Pocomoke Solar Arrays: 2.1 megawatts per year
Crisfield Wind Turbine: 750 kilowatts per year
Wicomico County Solar Farms: $162,000 per year
Pocomoke Solar Arrays: $40,000 per year
Crisfield Wind Turbine: $150,000-$200,000 per year
Somerset Wind Turbines: Additional $1,466,666 in tax revenue per year
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