SUMNER — Interested parties on both sides of the wind debate made their cases to about 65 citizens of Sumner during a public information session held Thursday, August 18.
Both of the primary speakers lead groups that have a stake in the debate, which is being conducted as Sumner’s town leaders try to decide how to craft an ordinance governing wind power.
Christopher O’Neil, a former legislator and lobbyist who currently serves as a government relations director, spoke on behalf of Friends of Maine’s Mountains and against wind power.
Joseph Santolucito, speaking in favor of wind power, is the president of Clear Sky Energy, a company that is seeking to develop a wind farm in the town.
Bruce Metrick, of construction firm Cianbro Corporation, also gave a presentation in which he spotlighted different wind power projects that the company had been involved with in recent years.
Santolucito spoke often about the financial benefits that Sumner taxpayers would receive if the wind project moved forward.
He said that Clear Sky would become Sumner’s largest taxpayer, contributing 28 percent of the $900,000 tax base.
He said that the company would establish a separate community benefit fund that would go to local causes.
In addition to contributing between $200,000 and $300,000 annually to the tax base, Santolucito said that Clear Sky would use “best effort” to ensure that local power prices would be discounted by a legally-restricted amount of about 5 percent.
He said that wind power would help to stabilize electricity costs in the region, and protect local residents from increases in fossil fuel-produced electricity.
Santolucito also said that the community would see $150,000 in local spending during the construction of a wind farm.
During his presentation, Santolucito cited studies that suggest that there are no health concerns related to proximity to wind turbines, and he suggested that a switch to wind power would help to improve health, by eliminating the pollutants associated with traditional fuel sources.
In response to questions, Santolucito said that Clear Sky would pay for any road upgrades associated with the project, and that if endangered bird and bat species were impacted by the presence of the turbines, the company would enact protective measures to mitigate the damage.
O’Neil, speaking against wind power, made several arguments against a wind farm in Sumner.
“We’ve seen a couple of towns grapple with the invasion of this so-called industry, and it tears the towns apart,” said O’Neil.
He scoffed at the notion that the wind industry could promise to keep communities safe.
“We’re being presented with solutions when we have yet to define the problems,” he said.
O’Neil said that wind farms would not be a replacement for fossil fuels in Maine.
“In the state of Maine, we have generational capacity,” said O’Neil. “The total generation in Maine is 4,300 megawatts. You’re looking at 10 more here.” He said that, on average, Maine uses 1,500 megawatts of electricity at a time.
“If CO2 is the problem, wind power’s not gonna solve it,” said O’Neil.
O’Neil questioned the financial viability of the project, and repeatedly presented a scenario in which Clear Sky abandoned the town.
“If these are not viable, and are left rusted and hulking, and these folks are gone, that’s a situation you’ll regret,” said O’Neil.
O’Neil also said that the turbines created health and safety issues for residents living near them.
“The noise, it’s not to be dismissed,” he said. “Maybe it doesn’t sound loud to you and me. When you live there, and it’s pulsating in your chest and eroding the balance of your brains … you do something.”
Sumner resident Walter Jasniewski said that he took the presentations with a grain of salt.
“I think the presenters, they give us everything they believe in,” he said. “You have to look into it yourself.”
He said that he had made up his own mind largely based on anecdotes he had read on the Internet.
“From what I’ve read, people who have windmills, they were for it, but once they’ve had time to live with them, they’re against,” he said.
Ron Turcotte said that he came into the meeting leaning against wind power, and that the presentations had reinforced his opinions.
“It was informative on both sides,” he said.
He said that he was leery of the benefits that the community would receive, as compared to the price it would pay.
“When all is said and done, that windmill’s just there to please some politician,” he said.
One area of disagreement is related to the desirable required setback between a potential wind turbine and a resident.
Advocates say that living near a wind turbine is harmless, while opponents claim that it can cause devastating health effects.
Santolucito said that he felt that a safe setback would be 1,500 feet, a distance that he said exceeded the 500-600 feet required by the Department of Environmental Protection.
Santolucito pointed to a number of communities that have sited wind turbines on elementary school grounds as evidence of their harmlessness.
O’Neil said that the long-term health effects of a turbine have not yet been determined, and that he would recommend a town “go two miles if you can.”
“It’s so new there’s not definitive science, but it’s coming,” said O’Neil.
Typically, an ordinance requiring a two-mile setback is sufficiently restrictive to prevent wind projects from moving forward in Maine communities.