From some of the thickest West Virginia wilderness and the highest peak in Maryland, people may soon see wind turbines spinning and blinking on the horizon.

South of three established Pennsylvania wind farms, Somerset, Mill Run and Garrett, which combined generate enough emission-free electricity to power approximately 8,000 homes, a half-dozen more wind turbine sites are under construction or consideration.

Should they all gain approval, more than 500 individual turbines, each four-fifths the height of the Washington Monument, soon will rise from the ridges.

They could benefit the Bay by reducing the need for electricity from fossil fuel-burning power plants, which release harmful pollutants into the air — and ultimately the Chesapeake.

But the cumulative effect of so many towers being built so quickly worries many residents near the headwaters of the Bay watershed and lovers of the outdoors — including several who deeply support renewable energy in general.

In Maryland, the Public Service Commission is considering applications to build two dozen turbines atop Big Savage Mountain and 67 turbines along 10 miles of Backbone Mountain, the state’s tallest peak.

On West Virginia’s Backbone Mountain, the construction of a 44-turbine wind farm, called the Mountaineer Wind Energy Center, is expected to be completed by the end of 2003. Meanwhile, the Public Service Commission of West Virginia has granted permission to a company, Mount Storm Wind Force, to build a 166-turbine wind farm near Mount Storm.

The commission is also considering a proposal from Dominion Mount Storm Inc., a subsidiary of Virginia-based Dominion, for a 40-turbine installation in the same locale, although this project is temporarily on hold. And a company called NedPower LLC has sought permission to build more than 200 turbines, also to be located nearby.

No federal agency has jurisdiction over these projects, and neither state has standing, comprehensive guidelines specifically tailored to wind power project siting. Environmental impact statements are not automatically required.

Complicating matters further, each of the companies with standing permit applications has asked for and been granted expedited review by the state public service commissions. This compresses a review process that would usually take several years into approximately six months.

The reason for this, according to officials at both state commissions, is that a federal tax credit designed to stimulate wind energy production expires at the end of 2003. Although it has been extended several times in the past, there are no guarantees that this will happen again, and the companies desperately want, even need, to get their projects moving in time to qualify for the incentive.

Opponents of the wind farm projects, who primarily object to the turbines’ effects on the area’s viewshed and/or wildlife, contend that the quick reviews carried out by state agencies with little experience in doing them have led to serious missteps along the way.

“I’ve talked to people whose property would be affected by the sites who don’t even know wind farms may soon be coming,” said Donna Cook, head of a local citizens group, Friends of the Allegheny Front.
Cook noted that the wind turbines “may really harm tourism,” because some of the turbines would be visible from the popular Dolly Sods wilderness area and Canaan Valley attractions.

The projects’ opponents also point to the wind turbines’ potential harm to wildlife. Endangered northern flying squirrels, the Cheat Mountain salamander, several bat species and other fragile populations are known to live in the area, and the Allegheny Front is an essential vein for bird migration.

Chandler Robbins, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who has edited Maryland Birdlife for more than five decades, recently advised the state that “migrating hawks use essentially all of the ridges in western Maryland during their spring and fall migrations, [and] nearly all the hawks and eagles that nest in the northeastern United States and the eastern provinces of Canada migrate through Maryland.”

He urged the commission, “in view of the enormity of the potential threat to the North American migratory bird population,” to delay the construction of the turbines until the impact on birds at existing wind farms is thoroughly evaluated.

Maryland’s Public Service Commission will have to weigh the reservations of Robbins and others against the conditional support offered to the proposed wind farms by the heads of several state agencies, including the departments of Agriculture, Planning, Business and Economic Development, Transportation, Natural Resources, Environment, Maryland Energy Administration and the Office of Smart Growth.

The conditions advanced by these agencies include post-construction monitoring for bird and bat mortality, with provisions for stopping the turbines in the event of a “catastrophic mortality event” in which more than 200 animals are killed in a 24-hour period at any turbine.

The conditions also aim to limit avian and visual impacts of the turbines by minimizing the lights used on the turbines to the lowest levels allowed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Both public service commissions are expected to rule on the pending wind farm proposals in the first quarter of the year.