A Wind-Win for Md., and a Beacon for the Bay

Environmental Commentary by Sierra Gladfelter

After protesting at a nearby coal plant in 2008 and becoming discouraged with his own dependence on unsustainable energy, Charles County Commissioner Ken Robinson decided to build a wind generator on his coastal property and get off the grid. He became the first individual in Southern Maryland to build one on his land.

After Robinson made the rounds to neighbors, the community embraced his idea. “Only slightly taller than a flag pole,” the 33-foot turbine produces 30–40 percent of Robinson’s power. Tax credits and a Windswept Grant from the Maryland Energy Administration covered half of the $23,000 construction cost. The rest was returned in just five years of spinning.

While private windmills have increased, wind farms erected in state-owned waters have yet to materialize. The Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries alone have 11,684 miles of shoreline, most of which feel daily breezes. Still, with coastal wind potential estimated at four times that of all other power plants, and turbines an attractive opportunity in the United States’ search for green power, there is not a single offshore turbine.

Maryland is taking the lead among the handful of mid-Atlantic coastal states in the race for wind. After two years and two failed attempts, Maryland’s General Assembly passed Gov. Martin O’Malley’s Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act of 2013. The bill will provide $1.5 billion, incentivizing projects like the construction of 40 turbines 10 miles off the coast of Ocean City and requiring 20 percent of Maryland’s electricity to come from renewable sources. In addition to powering a third of the homes on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, this 200-megawatt project could generate 850 jobs in manufacturing and construction and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by upwards of 378,000 tons per year.

The opportunity is out there for the rest of the Bay, but the obstacle is fickle national incentives. Delaware, for example, lost its shot in 2011 at a cluster of turbines proposed by Bluewater Wind off the state’s southern shores. While local support pushed it through the hoops, the project died when the federal government cut its loan guarantee program and investors blew out of town.

Winds off the coast have not gone ignored in Virginia, either. Quoting more than 54 gigawatts of power potential — equivalent to taking 52 coal-fired power plants off the grid — the Virginia Offshore Wind Coalition is lobbying for offshore farms. For the time being, though, investors remain unconvinced. It may take states setting their own standard, like Maryland, for the wheels to finally get spinning.

Meanwhile, momentum for wind has been blowing inland. The same day the Wind Energy Act passed in Maryland, Robinson was the host at a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the Renewable Energy Center at Crain Memorial Welcome Center, a tourist rest stop on U.S. 301 near the Potomac River. A 12-kilowatt turbine there will fuel an electric car charging station and assist in keeping the center off the grid. A destination in itself, the project is the first of its kind in Maryland and one of a handful globally.

“We’re trying to be leaders here in Southern Maryland,” Robinson said. “This is a symbol of the future.”

Now that the bill has passed, community opposition poses the last major hurdle. If the decade of permitting and litigation that Cape Wind, located in Massachusetts and the nation’s first offshore wind proposal, has faced can offer perspective, windmills in Maryland waters may be further from the horizon than hoped.

The traditional argument against windmills has been unwarranted “genocide” of birds and bats in turbine propellers. When I asked for Robinson’s death toll, he laughed. “Well, there are a lot of birds where I live, but my turbine has yet to kill a bird.” In fact, on several occasions he has spied ospreys perched on the top of the windmill as its blades rotated at full speed. “Birds are smarter than we give them credit for,” Robinson said.

After the 800-page Environmental Impact Assessment was approved and defiant environmental organizations like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club afforded their approval, Cape Wind’s most vehement opponents remained those defending the uncompromised vistas of Nantucket Sound.

Luckily, Maryland’s wind farm will be so far from shore that most people will be unable to see it. “It’s completely subjective,” Robinson admitted. “I think my windmill is a work of art.” The good news is studies have found that local support often rises with the turbines themselves.

As states around the Bay fight their own battles, Maryland is closing in on the finish line to be the first to have offshore wind.

“We’ll be the Petri dish for the rest of them,” Robinson joked.

In the meantime, Bay Area residents with waterfront property might consider their own turbine, regardless of their state.

Sierra Gladfelter lives near the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania where she has hiked and paddled since birth. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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