For Somerset County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a proposed wind farm with 25 towering turbines would mean hundreds of construction jobs and extra cash for struggling farmers. But just across the Chesapeake Bay in Southern Maryland is the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, home to a highly sensitive radar system that tests the stealthiness of fighter jets — and would be compromised by towering, whirling turbines.
After more than two years of meetings with military leaders, the wind farm developers thought they had reached a compromise: protect the radar capabilities by simply turning the turbines off during test flights.
They didn’t expect that U.S. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and a coalition of Southern Maryland lawmakers would circumvent the process, worried that the military was not doing enough to protect its “Pax River” assets.
In the final days of the recently concluded Maryland General Assembly session, lawmakers voted to delay all wind projects of a certain height within 46 miles of the base until June 2015 — effectively killing plans for the Great Bay Wind Center.
Now Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) must decide whether to veto the legislation, as environmental groups are demanding, or allow it to become law. Activists warn that the measure could scare away wind developers and taint O’Malley’s reputation as a dedicated environmentalist as he contemplates a run for the White House.
“You’ve shown national-caliber leadership in getting policies in place,” Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune wrote in an April 11 letter, “but without construction of actual projects, Maryland residents won’t get the benefits they deserve.”
A veto likely would anger Hoyer, whom the governor considers a friend and important political ally, as well as the progressive state lawmakers who have pushed through nearly all of O’Malley’s legislative priorities.
“I would be very disappointed,” said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles), chairman of the influential state Senate Finance Committee. “It was a strong vote. The legislature spoke.”
By 2022, Maryland wants 20 percent of its energy to come from renewable sources, a goal that would be most easily accomplished by increasing the number of renewable energy sources within the state.
The goal caught the attention of Texas-based Pioneer Green Energy four years ago, and the company developed a plan to spend $200 million to construct at least 25 turbines in Somerset County. The location is close to high-voltage power lines that can upload energy from the turbines. It receives strong winds off the bay and has acres of agriculture and chicken farms whose owners would be eager to make extra cash by hosting a 600-foot-tall turbine.
In early 2012, Pax River base official Vice Adm. David Architzel met with O’Malley and his energy adviser to explain the base’s concern about the turbines. Two Southern Maryland lawmakers attended the meeting, Middleton and Del. John L. Bohanan Jr. (D-St. Mary’s). Soon after, the General Assembly passed legislation that requires additional approvals for wind farms within 46 miles of the base.
The law did not deter the Great Bay Wind Center, which eked its way through the approval process. Bohanan and the other lawmakers said that Pax River officials were pressured by national leaders to work with the developers and find a solution.
Driving the federal pressure was a 2001 executive order to expedite energy projects; a provision in the 2011 Defense Authorization Act that allows energy developers to more easily work with the Defense Department; and an Obama administration goal, issued in December, to double renewable energy by 2020.
“These military bases take their orders from the commander in chief — that’s the president,” Middleton said. “And there’s an executive order for a renewable energy effort.”
Pax River has steadily grown in recent years, even as military installments elsewhere contracted or closed. The base employs 22,000 people and pumps $7.5 billion into the state economy each year. Local lawmakers say they do not want anything to threaten that growth — and they believe that a swarm of turbines would scare away private contractors and foreign governments who pay to use the base’s radar. Other bases likely would seize on that weakness, critics of the wind farm project say.
“Those kinds of cracks in the armor are what other communities look for,” said Bohanan, who in addition to his elected job in the State House works on Hoyer’s congressional staff. “Once you lose those capabilities, you never get them back.”
Pax River hired MIT researchers to assess the potential effect of a wind farm on the base’s radar. Their report said the “system will be significantly impacted,” and recommended that the base build a “radar fence” or relocate its antenna, among other things.
The wind farm developers suggested a different solution: they would turn off the turbines during test flights, up to 1,500 hours — about 62 days — a year. The developers and the base drafted a tentative agreement.
“Then Congressman Hoyer put a hold on it,” said Adam Cohen, a co-founder of Pioneer Green Energy. “We feel like there’s a very small group here that’s hijacked the process.”
Hoyer spokeswoman Mariel Saez said the congressman heard from constituents who work at the base and feared losing their jobs. Late last year, Hoyer asked the Navy to hold off on signing the agreement. “It is Congressman Hoyer’s responsibility to protect jobs and ensure Pax River can maintain its current capabilities,” Saez said.
Bohanan led the Southern Maryland delegation in introducing the legislation to delay any turbine construction near Pax River until a year from June.
Lt. Greg D. Raelson, a Navy spokesman, said although “representatives from Pioneer Green have stated they have an agreement with the Department of the Navy, the agreement still requires revisions and has not been approved.”
Another Navy official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly on the issue, said the base had always considered the tentative agreement to be a short-term solution, not a permanent one.
In the long term, the base would need a different accommodation, such as changing the radar algorithm to cancel out the force of the turbines, this official said. MIT was asked to do another study and detail more options. That study is due next year.
The delay means Pioneer Green Energy, which has spent $4 million on the project so far, would need to redo studies required for the permit process, and would likely lose its spot in line to contribute energy to the grid. The company could also miss a deadline to qualify for federal tax credits.
“It kills our project,” Cohen said. “And it would send a chilling message to everyone in the wind world that Maryland is not a place to do business.”
Members of the O’Malley administration were surprised by the legislation, said Abigail Ross Hopper, the director of the quasi-governmental Maryland Energy Administration. She said the law would forbid most turbines in a 5,300-square-mile swath of the state that touches a dozen counties.
“While we recognize the tremendous economic value of Patuxent River Naval Air Station,” Hopper said in written testimony to lawmakers, “we must also be mindful of the potential economic benefit of wind energy projects on the Eastern Shore.”
The issue pitted Southern Maryland lawmakers against those from the Eastern Shore, a rarity for two groups that are usually united in standing up for the state’s more rural, socially conservative areas. Several lawmakers said they did not understand the need for the legislation, and they asked why Navy officials never testified in hearings about it.
Sen. James N. Mathias Jr. (D-Worcester), who represents Somerset County, said the legislature may have overreacted, escalating “rumor to real concern.” He said the 500 jobs promised by the wind-farm developers would be transformative for Somerset, where the unemployment rate is more than 10 percent. More than 20 percent of people live in poverty in a state where the median income is nearly $73,000.
“We had an opportunity for jobs, economic development, renewable energy, and all of that was dashed,” Mathias said.
O’Malley’s spokeswoman said last week that the governor “continues to review the legislation.”