First state wind farm to begin operating

From left: Don Shilobod, Dave Wagner and Kevin Thornton of Constellation Energy examine a section of the company’s Backbone Mountain wind power facility. One group of turbines is expected to become operational next week.

OAKLAND — Maryland’s first-ever commercial wind farm is set to begin partial operations in less than one week, according to developer Constellation Energy.

In recent months a total of 28 bright white wind turbines, stretching 415 feet into the air from base to vertical blade tip, sprung up along eight miles of Backbone Mountain in Garrett County.

Construction began on the site in mid-March, and is now largely complete.

On Monday, workers broke down enormous construction cranes and loaded them to haul away.

Others put the final touches on access roads across the site, spreading crushed stone on dirt roadbeds rutted from the passage of heavy equipment.

Crews from Clipper Windpower, the turbine manufacturer, are now completing individual pre-commissioning checks of each turbine’s electrical systems, according to site facilities manager Don Shilobod.

That process requires between two and four days per turbine.

Shilobod said 17 turbines had passed pre-commissioning as of Monday morning.

The central section of turbines, located between Gorman Road and Bethlehem Road, could begin operating as early as Monday.

But the official start of the facility’s commercial operations is set for December, to allow time for working out any possible kinks.

On Oct. 25 the developer will begin repaving a section of highway from State Route 560 up Bethlehem Road to the electrical substation on Eagle Rock Road.

The road was torn up, with permission from the County Roads Department, to build a trench for running electrical lines between sections of the project.

At its peak in mid-summer the project employed about 200 individuals, Wagner said. But that number has declined, and will continue to drop off as the project nears commissioning.

When it becomes operational, the facility will have nine full-time employees permanently assigned to the site, including Shilobod.

They will work out of a headquarters building now being constructed beside the electrical substation along Eagle Rock Road.

If the project is ever permanently shut down, Constellation has entered into a decommissioning agreement with the leasing landowners to remove the visible parts of the turbines, Wagner said.

That will extend 3 feet under the ground’s surface to a portion of the base of each turbine, which consists of a massive, 388 cubic yard block of concrete and rebar.

Most of that foundation will be left underground, he said. But the circular concrete pedestal that protrudes above the ground will be cut off and covered.

The $140 million wind power project has received support from the county government, which owns some of the land being leased for the facility.

But it met with a mixed response from Garrett County visitors and residents, including stiff resistance from wind farm opposition group Save Western Maryland.

In a June 23 letter, the group warned Constellation that it would sue unless the developer sought an incidental take permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The permit process would require the developer to create a detailed conservation plan to mitigate any potential harm to endangered wildlife, such as the Indiana bat.

Constellation is “in the process of filing the paperwork” for the permit, according to spokesman Kevin Thornton.

“We have great hope that we could have the ITP in hand by springtime,” Thornton said.

Of the threatened lawsuit, Thornton said that no litigation had been filed as of Monday morning.

“Because of that, our response is that there is no litigation,” he said.

The developer began monitoring bat activity on the site, using audio recording equipment, in mid-April.

That monitoring effort will continue through mid-November.

Wagner said he’s unsure if any further monitoring will be conducted in the future.

In the early days of construction workers encountered several bears on the site, according to site safety manager Craig Achenbach. They also relocated 17 rattlesnakes.

“We just scoot them out of the way,” he said. “They belong here.”

Construction work on the site was temporarily halted in March when the Maryland Department of the Environment found violations related to inadequate or improperly installed erosion and sediment controls.

Constellation addressed the violations and revised its site plans, and was allowed to proceed with construction shortly thereafter.

On Monday Wagner acknowledged that there were errors in the initial erosion and sediment controls.

But he pointed out that the work site underwent 24 subsequent inspections – some of them without prior notice – without any further work stoppages from MDE.

“Through the construction phase we’ve had a full-time environmental person on the site at all times,” he said. “Those were lessons learned from our first inspection.”

Wagner acknowledged that Constellation had anticipated a high level of statewide interest in and scrutiny of the project, because it was effectively blazing a new trail in Maryland energy production.

“From the very beginning we were aware that we were going to be looked at, as the first facility of its kind in the state,” he said.

Contact Megan Miller at mmiller@times-news.com.

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