WASHINGTON – The Sierra Club has joined other environmental groups that are challenging an electricity-generating wind farm proposed in Garrett County, the third such facility proposed for Western Maryland.
Although wind power is usually lauded as a “clean” form of energy, the groups say they want more study of the 40-megawatt Synergics Wind Energy farm proposed for Backbone Mountain, saying its 24 turbines could damage habitat and kill bats and birds.
“These are huge industrial facilities,” said Dan Boone, a Bowie resident and spokesman for Citizens for Responsible Windpower. “There’ll be more high-rise structures in Garrett County than in downtown Baltimore.”
The Sierra Club on Thursday joined his group, the Audubon Naturalist Society and other activists who have filed to intervene in the state’s permitting process.
But wind-power backers accuse critics of overstating the impact of the power-generating windmills, which they say will ultimately help the environment.
“Some of the environmental groups are saying things that aren’t true,” said Synergics Project Manager Neal Wilkins. “I’m not going to resort to the tactics that they use.”
The Maryland Public Service Commission next week is expected to set a hearing date on the project. Synergics has said it hopes to start construction next summer.
Synergics’ plan calls for 24 windmills, each 262-foot tall, that would stretch over three miles of mountain ridges.
In its application to the PSC, Synergics said only about two-thirds of an acre would be cleared or altered for the project and that it would be careful in how it selected trees to clear. The application also says the project would have few ecological effects and that turbines would be placed carefully to “minimize the visual impact to the ridge top tree line.”
But Boone and others are demanding more study of the area.
Boone says the benefits of wind power are exaggerated, while risks to birds and bats are understated. He cited a study that found that a wind farm on West Virginia’s portion of Backbone Mountain killed more than 2,000 bats and about 200 birds last year. The study was commissioned by FPL Energy, which owns the Mountaineer Wind Energy Center in Tucker and Preston counties in West Virginia.
Boone said the data collection was faulty and that those numbers are far too low. He predicted that the three proposed Maryland wind farms could kill as many as 10,000 bats and about 1,000 birds could a year.
But Synergics’ application to the state said that assessments of bird and bat mortality from turbine generators show that there would not be a major biological impact.
The state has already issued permits for two other wind farms. Kevin Rackstraw, a regional leader for Clipper Windpower Inc., said he hoped to start construction on a 67-turbine, 100-megawatt farm this spring on Backbone Mountain.
U.S. Wind Force has also received a permit to erect windmills on Savage Mountain, in Garrett and Allegany counties, that would produce 40 megawatts. It has not yet started construction.
All the companies included environmental analyses in their applications, but Jon Robinson, vice chairman of the Maryland Chapter of the Sierra Club, is not convinced.
“We’re in favor of wind power as a concept. We’re not convinced that giant industrial wind facilities are the best way to capture wind power,” he said.
He compared ridge tops dotted with 300-foot tall turbines to scenes in science fiction movies, and said that smaller operations or private towers are a better alternative.
But Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said wind farms’ effects on wildlife are minor when compared with the effects of global warming and acid rain, which are caused by pollution from coal-fired power plants. Even on Backbone Mountain, he said, tree growth has been stunted by acid rain.
“The people who express concern for migratory birds and bats in relation to wind are not being candid in discussing additionally the huge, huge impacts from fossil fuels on these same birds,” Tidwell said.
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