EASTON — A group of state and national environmental groups are pushing U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., to remove language she introduced in a Senate report on a defense appropriations bill that could kill a wind energy project in Somerset County.
“Any further delay will, in fact, terminate the development of that wind farm and much more will be lost economically and environmentally in the process,” said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network — one of the 21 groups that signed a letter sent to Mikulski calling her to withdraw the language.
The language, if included in the appropriations bill, would bar the U.S. Navy from striking a deal with developer Pioneer Green Energy LLC, or any wind project, until a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study is completed.
The proposed 150-megawatt wind energy farm, being called the Great Bay Wind project, could interfere with Navy’s radar testing across the Chesapeake Bay at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in St. Mary’s County.
“I look forward to receiving the letter and will review it closely when I do,” Mikulski said in a statement. “I have been supportive of developing alternative energy sources. However, the Navy has commissioned a $2 million MIT study to make sure PAX’s test range is not disrupted. The study should be completed before next steps are taken. Better safe than sorry.”
Paul Harris, lead developer on the Great Bay Wind Project at Pioneer Green Energy, said the language, which is currently non-binding, will send a “chilling effect” to the Navy and the Department of Defense and “really can impact our negotiations with them” and further slow down the process of getting the project built.
The first phase of the MIT study looked at wind turbines taller than 600 feet. Harris said the first phase of an MIT study deemed that turning off the wind turbines when the Navy is conducting radar testing would alleviate the problem.
However, the second phase of the MIT study is underway to look at the effects of the turbines shorter than 600 feet and what could be done to mitigate them. It is planned for completion by April 2015.
But, deadlines loom.
Harris said there’s a timeline in which the project must hook up to the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland power grid connection, and a further delay of the project would stress that timeline.
Also, he said the project is relying on production tax credits to make the energy cheaper per kilowatt produced, and that tax credit’s expiration is approaching.
“If the project is not under construction and completed construction by the end of 2015, we would not qualify for those tax credits,” Harris said, adding the project might not be able to continue if those tax credits are lost.
The project was under fire in the Maryland General Assembly earlier this year.
A bill was passed that would have delayed the project until the MIT study was complete. U.S. House Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md.-5th, testified in favor of the bill before it was passed by state lawmakers.
But the Maryland bill was vetoed by Gov. Martin O’Malley, who said that environmental and climate change concerns were of a greater importance.
Harris said Pioneer Green Energy has already spent between $3 million and $4 million in private funds on this project, which plans to bring 25 wind turbines in the first stage to Somerset County — the poorest county in the state.
With a total cost of $200 million, Harris referred to a 2012 study that suggested the project would bring 500 construction jobs to the Eastern Shore’s three lower counties of Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester counties.
But, the real long term benefit is in tax revenues, Harris said.
“Property taxes would accumulate to about $44 million in revenues for the life of the project,” he said, adding it would bring just more than $2 million on a yearly basis to Somerset County and account for about 10 percent of the county’s property tax revenues.
There are even benefits for those on whose land the project would be built, like Mary Ann Peterman’s farm in Somerset County.
“I’m very disappointed in Sen. Mikulski’s decision to support the special interest of the defense industry over the protection of our environment, family farming and a once in a lifetime chance for significant development in Somerset County,” Peterman said.
Peterman said the potential earnings from the project would help her family, and other farms in the county, “and the tax revenue for this project would be an enormous benefit for our county.”
Sen. Jim Mathais, D-38-Lower Shore, is on board in urging Mikulski to remove the language from the Senate report.
He said he’s working with Mikulski and U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., to find a way to remedy the production tax credit situation.
“We’re looking to find ways to make certain that Great Bay Wind and Pioneer Green can go forward,” Mathais said.
Mathais said it’s important to make sure Pioneer Green Energy is confident to move forward with the project and that the money already spent, and that will be spent on it in the future, isn’t wasted.
He said it’s also important to show to possible future companies looking to capitalize on wind energy on the Eastern Shore that the government is open to working with them if they follow all the rules, like Pioneer Green Energy has.
Harris said that Pioneer Green Energy officials testified during the Maryland legislative session on the bill that would have delayed the project, saying it would be hard to legitimize continuing to move forward with the project in a state where it wasn’t clear if the investment is wanted. The same goes for the language Mikulski added in the Senate report, if it eventually gets voted into the defense appropriations bill, he said.
The language was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee and now moves to the Senate floor for a vote, but the vote hasn’t been scheduled yet.
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