By Jason Babcock
St. Mary’s County officials applauded this week the “indefinite suspension” of a wind turbine project planned across the Chesapeake Bay from Patuxent River Naval Air Station.
The Great Bay wind energy project with wind turbines nearing 600 feet tall was deemed a threat to national security last fall by the Department of Defense because of possible interference to a specialized radar system at Pax River.
Adam Cohen, vice president of Pioneer Green Energy, wrote in a March 20 letter to the Somerset County commissioners, “it is apparent that we are no longer able to proceed with our investment in any way in the near term. We are forced to thus place the project in indefinite suspension and as such we will not be requesting a permit for construction of the Great Bay Wind project in Somerset County at the current time or in the foreseeable future.”
Cohen could not be reached this week for comment.
Maryland lawmakers proposed a moratorium on Pioneer Green’s wind turbine project last year to allow the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to complete a $2 million study of the impact on the radar systems. The bill passed, but was then vetoed by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), a supporter of renewable energy for Maryland.
The MIT study is expected to be completed by the end of this year, officials said.
In his letter, Cohen placed blame at the feet of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland), who included restrictions to prevent an agreement between the Great Bay project and the Navy that would have stopped the wind turbines from spinning while defense radar systems were tested.
“One of the most substantial obstacles to bringing jobs and new investment to Somerset County occurred in August of 2014,” Cohen wrote. “At that time, U.S. Senator Mikulski added language to an unrelated piece of federal legislation that placed the entire Great Bay Wind investment and business into a state of uncertainty.”
Mikulski’s office did not provide comment this week in response to Pioneer Green’s assertion.
Pioneer Green also blamed Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) and John Bohanan, who then was still a Maryland legislator representing St. Mary’s County, in a Dec. 1, 2014, letter to The (Baltimore) Sun for “playing politics” in opposing the project.
“If there is no real security or operational concern, why is Mr. Hoyer so intent on killing the wind farm? Many signs point to politics,” Andy Bowman, president of Pioneer Green, wrote. “Mr. Hoyer created this fake crisis by meddling in a process that he himself passed a law to protect from politics.”
Hoyer said in a statement Thursday morning, “While we both are committed to the development of renewable energy, I supported the action Sen. Mikulski took last year to ensure that we had time to obtain needed scientific information to make sure the Great Bay Wind project did not interfere with the vital national security mission of Patuxent River Naval Air Station, which is a critical asset to St. Mary’s County, our state, and our country.
“Without this information, the Department of Defense objected to the project last fall on the grounds that it posed a threat to the mission and ADAMS radar system at Pax River,” Hoyer said. “I have been a longtime supporter of Pax River, the men and women it employs, and will continue to advocate for its continued growth, and the economic well being of Southern Maryland.”
There is a new bill this year to strengthen Maryland regulations on wind farms that encroach on other facilities, introduced by Maryland Sen. Steve Waugh (R-St. Mary’s, Calvert).
“Since Great Bay has walked away from the project, it’s given us more time, so we’re really in good shape now” in crafting the legislation, Waugh said Wednesday. Now, it’s “even easier for us to permanently protect the [Navy] ranges” in the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean.
“The primary problem was that Pioneer Green could not find anyone to sell the energy to. That’s what I’m told,” Waugh said.
“If you can’t get a lease, you can’t get a permit. It’s good news for Pax River there’s no doubt about it,” he added.
St. Mary’s County Commissioner Todd Morgan (R), a program manager for a defense contractor, took to social media Tuesday night to say, “I am very proud to have been a part of cohesive team effort including our federal, state, base and local leaders as we have continued to protect and enhance the Patuxent Naval Air Station and in particular the technical capabilities of the Atlantic Test Range.”
On Thursday, Morgan said, “It’s easy to blame Mikulski, but there were a lot of forces ... The decision moved to DoD. You went past the Navy. The facts and the data were all there. The Navy was able to present the case ... this was serious.”
In the coming weeks, Cohen wrote, an affiliate of Pioneer Green Energy will make a pitch for an unrelated solar project in Somerset County.
Commissioner Tom Jarboe (R), who was in Israel this week on a Maryland trade delegation visit, said via email he was “glad to read about the wind farm project switching to solar.”
It’s a “big win for St. Mary’s and another job creation opportunity for the Eastern Shore,” he said.
“It’s a good thing,” Morgan said. However, “we’ve got to stay vigilant. These things can pop up.”