CHESTERTOWN — It has been about a year since plans for a wind farm in Kent County were first publicized and, in the intervening months, the list of questions regarding the project continues to grow among local residents concerned about the potential for 500-foot turbines to dot the landscape.
Apex Clean Energy's Tyson Utt, Mid-Atlantic director of development, and Charlie Johnson, development manager, spoke in March 2014 about building 35 to 45 wind turbines, maxing out at 500 feet tall, on farmland located in the Kennedyville area, between state routes 213 and 291. The project is called Mills Branch Wind.
Apex experts have been conducting the many environmental and feasibility studies required by federal and state agencies for wind farms, while company representatives are meeting with property owners about leasing space for the turbines.
Proponents of wind energy say it is clean, reliable and renewable, thereby reducing reliance on fossil fuels. Opponents are concerned about environmental health issues such as strobing, shadow flicker and noise, as well negative effects on surrounding property values and the potential for harming bird and bat populations.
The Mills Branch Wind website states that Apex was attracted to Kent County after scouting a number of locations on the Eastern Shore. The site states that Apex chose the Kennedyville area because of its verified wind resources, existing high-voltage power lines, available farmland and existing network of highways, all without being in the vicinity of sensitive military and environmental areas.
Three to four weeks ago, opposition to Mills Branch Wind organized under the banner Keep Kent Scenic. The group launched a website, keepkentscenic.org, hosted an organizational meeting at the Kent County Public Library and held a protest at the county government's main office.
The Kent County Commissioners have gone on the record in opposition of the project. In the General Assembly, State Sen. Stephen S. Hershey Jr., R-36-Upper Shore, filed a bill ensuring the county, which has a 120-foot height limit for wind turbines, not the state, would have the final say over whether Mills Branch Wind can move forward.
The Kent County News followed up with Utt and Johnson via email with a series of questions about many of the concerns posed by Keep Kent Scenic and others over Mills Branch Wind. Their answers are printed here in their entirety.
Kent County News: How tall are the towers going to be? Apex previously said 500 feet, but some members of the public are claiming up to 650 feet. How many will there be? Apex previously said 35 to 45; others are claiming 59 or more.
Apex: There are several leading wind turbine suppliers, such as GE, Siemens and Vestas. Each manufacturer offers numerous models, several of which are being evaluated for the project. Wind turbine models are like car models: Each one has a different set of specifications and is designed to perform best in specific conditions.
The wind turbine model we select for Mills Branch will have a tower height between 300 and 400 feet (similar in height to the 350 feet tall communication tower a mile northeast of downtown Chestertown along state Route 291) and a rotor tip height (the distance from the ground to the tip of the blade, when that blade stands in the 12 o'clock position) between 500 and 600 feet.
The project is anticipated to consist of 25 to 35 wind turbines, also dependent upon the model selected. To get a sense of what these turbines will look like in Kent County, please take a look at the visual simulations on our website: www.millsbranchwind.com/viz_sim. These simulations model the largest possible project for the site, so they give a sense of what the project will look like if it includes 35 turbines at a representative 550 feet rotor tip height.
KCN: How will Apex be able to build above the county regulations on height for wind turbines?
Apex: Existing state law requires that any energy generation project the size of Mills Branch Wind go through the state Public Service Commission’s Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (CPCN) permit process. The CPCN permit process includes participation by the county. The CPCN permit process subjects the project to an increased level of technical review and analysis by the state’s various agencies. The application process also requires a public hearing for the project to be held in the county to ensure the public has the opportunity to participate in the application review process.
KCN: Is Apex seeking state designation as a public utility?
Apex: No, Apex is considered an Independent Power Producer (IPP) and does not have any eminent domain authority.
KCN: How will Apex address environmental health issues such as the "strobing effect" or flicker and ambient noise?
Apex: The Mills Branch project will be designed with a minimum setback from dwellings of 1,200 feet (nearly one-quarter mile) to address these concerns up front. In addition, we carefully site each wind turbine and utilize third-party experts to design the project to comply with permitting standards.
On “shadow flicker”: The term “shadow flicker” refers to the shadows cast by wind turbine blades as they rotate in front of the sun, similar to the shadow cast by a tree blowing in the wind. By positioning wind turbines at a carefully calculated angle and distance from dwellings, Apex ensures that most homes in a project experience no shadowing at all. For those that do, shadowing will occur for no more than a few minutes per day, on average. Shadowing does not occur on cloudy or foggy days.
For the rare instances that it may occur, it should be noted that shadow flicker is not dangerous. Though some have claimed that shadow flicker can create risk of seizures in photo-sensitive individuals, scientific evidence suggests that shadow flicker does not pose a risk for eliciting seizures as a result of photic stimulation.
On sound: To address concerns about sound up front, Apex is designing the project with a 1,200-foot setback from dwellings. This setback will also help address concerns about sound. Technical wind turbine data shows that the typical sound generated by modern wind turbines is no louder than a kitchen refrigerator at a distance of 1,000 feet. Scientific evidence confirms this sound is not dangerous and that any low-frequency waves produced are not harmful to those nearby.
According to a recent study “To date, no peer reviewed scientific journal articles demonstrate a causal link between people living in proximity to modern wind turbines, the noise (audible, low frequency noise, or infrasound) they emit and resulting physiological health effects.” (Knopper and Ollson, “Health Effects and Wind Turbines: A Review of the Literature.” Environmental Health 2011, 10:78.)
KCN: How close is the nearest house to a turbine? In the most populous area of the project, how many homes will be within a half mile of a turbine?
Apex: As mentioned above, we are designing the project with a minimum 1,200-foot setback from dwellings to provide a minimum distance of approximately one-quarter mile from the nearest home. We are still in the project study and design phase, making it too early to tell how many homes will be within a half mile of a wind turbine at this point.
Also, it would be helpful to clarify that the wind turbine layout filed in early 2014 with the Federal Aviation Administration was a hypothetical layout required by the FAA to study the general project area. The points selected for FAA analysis are not reflective of final turbine locations, but were chosen because of their distribution across the site.
KCN: There are concerns that Apex builds the towers, then sells the project off to another energy company. How many operational wind farms does Apex currently own in the U.S.? How many has it built and sold? Are there any other projects in Maryland? Are you looking at any other areas — other than Kent — in Maryland?
Apex: Apex has completed development on six projects in other states to date, four are under construction and two are operational. Apex is a growing company, and though we have not retained full ownership of the prior projects we have built, our goal is to own our own portfolio of wind energy projects within the near future. At this time, Apex plans to maintain ownership of the Mills Branch project, but regardless of who owns the project, that party will be required to comply with all the same landowner lease agreements and project permits that Apex has executed.
KCN: How many permanent jobs in Kent County will the project create once completed? How many full time, how many part time?
Apex: According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Job & Economic Development Impact Model, Mills Branch Wind is projected to create approximately 70 to 100 full-time-equivalent jobs during construction and 6 to 8 well-paying, long-term, full-time jobs for project operations. The project is also expected to support up to 10 induced full-time jobs in the local service industry. The construction of the Mills Branch Wind project will boost the local economy in many ways, and its operation will continue to infuse new revenue into the community and local farms for the life of the project.
KCN: Based on your studies, how far away (in miles) will the wind turbines generally be visible?
Apex: We have heard from many people in Kent County that they like the way modern wind turbines look in an agricultural setting, whether or not someone agrees is a matter of personal opinion.
Recent claims that the wind turbines would be visible from everywhere in Kent County are not accurate. Kent County would have to be a flat barren desert for a wind turbine to be visible from 30 miles away, and even then, it would look like a speck against the horizon.
Much like the existing transmission poles throughout Kent County, the perceived height of a wind turbine quickly drops off as you begin to move away from the project area. The visibility of the project is limited by distance, topography, tree lines, buildings and other obstructions within one’s line of sight.
In the attached project visual simulation, prepared by Kimley Horne & Associates of Raleigh, N.C., there are five turbines to the right of the railroad tracks, you can see the reduction in perceived height from the closest turbine (.39 miles away) compared to the fifth, and furthest, turbine (2.28 miles away). This demonstrates how tree lines and other factors can make it difficult to see the proposed project from many locations.
KCN: What attracted Apex to Kent County?
Apex: As we have gotten to know Kent County and many of its residents these past two years, we have come to understand that it is a diverse community that wants to both honor its history and chart a course toward a bright future.
We understand that there are questions and concerns regarding the Mills Branch Wind project. We want to acknowledge that the decision of whether or not to support a wind project in this area is something every local citizen will have to consider for themselves. Our goal is to make sure that everyone who is asking themselves this question has access to the most accurate and complete information available.
Luckily, this project is not getting built tomorrow. Rather, we have the luxury of time to continue to share information, answer questions and gather feedback from the community. To this end, we will be making ourselves as available as possible over the coming months. We invite anyone who is interested to reach out to us at www.millsbranchwind.com with your questions, and we will do our best to respond promptly.
Why Kent County? Maryland’s growing demand for new energy must be met by either coal, gas, nuclear, hydro, biomass, solar or wind. Marylanders overwhelmingly support diversifying the state’s energy portfolio with more clean energy options to protect the environment and human health (www.climatemaryland.org/public-beliefs-behaviors-preferences-energy). Kent County also has a proud history of agriculture, with many farms dating back generations and seeking new ways to diversify and sustain their families.
These facts coincide with wind energy emerging as a safe, reliable and cost effective energy source that is proven to be compatible with active farmland (www.lazard.com/PDF/Levelized%20Cost%20of%20Energy%20-%20Version%208.0.pdf). We understand wind energy is new to Kent County, but there are over 1,000 wind projects operating in the U.S. across 39 states, providing substantial economic development in agricultural communities similar to Kent County.
The Mills Branch project will be located on active farmland over six miles from downtown Chestertown and approximately two and a half miles from both Kennedyville and Galena. The project area is also a mile south of Route 213 and over a mile north of the Chester River. This particular area in eastern Kent County is suitable for a wind project because of its verified wind resource, existing high-voltage power lines, expansive active farmland, existing network of state highways and substantial distance from sensitive habitat such as the Bay and Chester or Sassafras Rivers.
The project will consist of 25 to 35 wind turbines, offsetting the equivalent carbon emissions of over 20,000 cars annually (awea.files.cms-plus.com/FileDownloads/pdfs/AWEA_Clean_Air_Benefits_WhitePaper%20Final.pdf) and generating enough clean renewable electricity to satisfy the annual electricity demand of all the homes in Kent County.