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Giant wind farm could deal the Chesapeake Bay a heavy blow

Maryland’s O’Malley ignores environmental and economic costs

- - Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A plan to build a Godzilla-class wind-power facility on Maryland's Eastern Shore overlooking the majestic Chesapeake Bay is encountering fierce turbulence owing to the project's enormous aesthetic, environmental and economic costs.

The $200-million, 150-megawatt Great Bay Wind Center is the brainchild of Texas-based Pioneer Green Energy, which boasts that the project will provide "clean, renewable energy right here in Maryland." Initially, 25 wind turbines soaring a breathtaking 599 feet into the air will grace the serene farmland of rural Somerset County, about 70 miles southeast of Washington, D.C. In a second phase, the developer plans to add another 25 sky-high wind towers.

Maryland's Democratic governor, Martin O'Malley, has bestowed his blessings on the project, saying the massive array of whirling wind turbines will provide a safeguard "against rising sea levels caused by climate change." Having invoked the bogeyman of fossil-fuel-induced global warming to justify the venture, Mr. O'Malley and the project's supporters also point to a University of Baltimore study showing that the wind facility would initially generate 529 short-term construction jobs and "as many as 64" permanent ones. Somerset County would receive an annual infusion of $2.9 million in tax revenues, according to the study. To sweeten the pot, Pioneer Green Energy is offering $20,000 or more per year to landowners who allow one of the giant turbines to be erected on their property.

Whatever economic benefits some may derive from the project will be overshadowed by the damage the facility threatens to inflict on the Chesapeake Bay region. Let's start with the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, just across the bay from the proposed sprawling wind farm. The base, with its 3,000-square-mile test range, is the only installation the Navy has that is capable of measuring the radar profiles of aircraft in flight. There is widespread concern that the electromagnetic waves emitted by the radar will create clutter when they come in contact with the project's towering, rotating wind turbines. This would interfere with the base's elaborate and expensive radar system.

Pioneer Green Energy has reached a preliminary agreement with the Navy under which the wind turbines would be shut down when the base's radar system is conducting test flights. That did little to dampen fears, though, that the Navy could abandon the Patuxent River base and move the radar-testing facility to another state. The Maryland General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a bill this spring delaying the start of construction pending a review of the project's overall impact by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mr. O'Malley vetoed the bill in May, provoking outrage from many in his own party, including House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer and Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin. No wonder: The base has more than 20,000 employees and provides indirect jobs to thousands more, in addition to pumping $7.5 billion annually into Maryland's economy.

The environmental case for the wind farm is even weaker than the economic one. Situated along the Atlantic Flyway, the Chesapeake Bay is home to untold thousands of birds and other wildlife, including federally protected bald eagles. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that the wind farm could kill up to 20 bald eagles a year, but that figure is based on data for predominantly western golden eagles. How many bald eagles will be slaughtered in the whirling turbine blades is anyone's guess. What's more, the project is located near the 13,000-acre Deal Island Wildlife Management Area and the 27,000-acre Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, both sanctuaries for waterfowl and birds migrating along the Atlantic Flyway.

By selecting a site that simultaneously jeopardizes the future of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station and needlessly puts at risk protected bald eagles and other wildlife, the developer could hardly have chosen a worse location. Maryland's mandate that 20 percent of its electricity come from renewable sources by 2022 means the state is desperate to lure the likes of Pioneer Green Energy to satisfy its wholly unrealistic requirement.

If local residents think the nearly 600-foot wind turbines are sky-high, just wait till they see their electricity bills. Wind power is far more expensive, and far less reliable, than electricity supplied by fossil fuels or nuclear power. Further damage to local communities will come from plummeting property values as a consequence of the monstrosity Mr. O'Malley insists on imposing on the lower Eastern Shore.

Subsidized by taxpayers and sanctioned by a governor eager to burnish his green credentials for a possible presidential bid, the project is tailor-made to harm wildlife and people alike, and to despoil one of the nation's natural treasures.

Bonner R. Cohen is a senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research.