Harley Lee started Endless Energy Corp. in 1987 to develop wind-power projects in Maine and New England.
"I wanted to save the planet and make a living," he said recently. So far, neither has happened.
Lee got close in 1994. He had turbines sitting in a parking lot at the Sugarloaf ski area. Then the manufacturer ran into financial trouble.
Lee has only one installation to show for 18 years of work Ð a lone turbine in Orland, partially funded by a government grant, that sends electricity to a blueberry grower.
Lee’s experience is emblematic of the overall failure in Maine to develop even one utility-scale wind-energy project. The track record isn’t much better in the rest of New England. The region’s only commercial wind farm – the term used for a group of wind-powered turbines – is in Vermont.
Wind energy sounds good. Pollution-free, renewable energy. Home-grown kilowatts to cut New England’s dependence on oil and natural gas.
But opposition from local residents and special-interest groups, volatile energy prices and tax policy and just plain bad luck have kept years of good intentions from becoming reality.
Now change may be in the wind. At least four major projects are proposed for Maine, more than ever before. More than a dozen are on the table elsewhere in the region.
If all the proposed Maine plants were built to their maximum output, they could generate a total of 840 megawatts, enough power to serve 250,000 homes. That electricity would help diversify the supply to the New England regional grid, which now depends on natural gas and nuclear power for roughly 60 percent of its needs. The projects also would create construction jobs and tax revenues in parts of rural Maine that could use an economic boost.
Lee is pushing one of the proposals, a $130 million project in western Maine near Sugarloaf. A second is in the Boundary Mountains, north of Eustis. Two more would be in Aroostook County: one in Mars Hill and the other in the St. John Valley.
Maine’s activity reflects a national boom. High natural gas prices and the extension of a key federal tax credit are attracting investment to the industry. Developers will install a record 2,500 megawatts this year. "I think the planets are aligned for some significant wind projects in Maine," said Beth Nagusky, who directs the state’s Office of Energy Independence and Security.
But Nagusky has watched other promising wind proposals blow away. She knows organized opposition has formed against Lee’s project and the Boundary Mountains venture. Only the Mars Hill project has all the needed permits to move ahead.
"I hope people will look at the big picture," she said.
Wind power’s challenges in New England are ironic: The world’s first wind farm was built in southern New Hampshire.
In 1980, California-based U.S. Windpower put 20 wind turbines on Crotched Mountain. But the machines had design flaws and the experiment failed. U.S. Windpower’s early history is intertwined with Maine’s false starts. The company later changed its name to Kenetech and became a major wind farm developer. In the early 1990s, it won Maine approvals at the Boundary Mountains location now being studied by Trans- Canada. But Kenetech expanded too fast and filed for bankruptcy in 1996.
Lee’s Sugarloaf venture followed a similar course. His turbine maker, Zond Wind Power, foundered and was sold to a division of Enron in 1997. When Enron imploded, General Electric bought the project. GE also owns the rights to the Boundary Mountains project; it has an agreement with TransCanada to seek state permits.
New England’s largest operating project is a 6.6-megawatt, 11-turbine wind farm in Searsburg, Vt., run by Green Mountain Power Corp. The other commercial-scale project – perhaps the region’s most visible Ð is the single, 164-foot-high turbine in Hull, Mass. Flights out of Boston’s Logan Airport sometimes pass right by it.
Wind turbines work best where wind is strongest. So developers want to maximize the advantages of a good site, according to Tom Gray, the association’s deputy executive director. That typically means installing massive turbines on tall towers, along open ridgelines or on coastal plains.
It’s easier to win public support for big wind farms in wide-open, unpopulated spaces, Gray said. By contrast, New England’s close-in topography, the scenic value of its hills and shorelines and its culture of local control throw up barriers to wind power.
Case in point: Harley Lee has been working for years to advance his Redington wind farm, four miles west of the Sugarloaf ski area. The project would have a capacity of 90 megawatts. It would feature 30 turbines.
The towers would be 260 feet high; the three blades on each turbine would be 190 feet long. By comparison, One City Center in Portland is 182 feet tall.
The turbines would be visible from the ski area and sections of the Appalachian Trail. But the view shouldn’t be objectionable to most people, according to surveys by the company.
Some area residents and special interests disagree.
An ad hoc group called the Friends of the Western Mountains has collected nearly 2,000 signatures opposing the project. They say Lee’s project doesn’t produce enough power to squander the scenic and recreational values of the summits along the Redington Pond range.
"If you were really going to save the world, who would object," said Dain Trafton, a retired college professor who lives in Phillips. "But wind power doesn’t really have that potential. It’s a land-intensive mode of generation. And why should we sacrifice these places for very little gain in generating capacity?"
A similar fight is shaping up for the Boundary Mountains proposal. TransCanada Energy of Calgary, Alberta, is erecting weather towers this fall around 3,654-foot Kibby Mountain to monitor wind speeds.
If the data look good, the company estimates that 50 to 100 towers 215 feet high could generate between 100 and 200 megawatts. The project could cost up to $350 million and create 250 construction jobs. Work would begin in 2008 if environmental and wind studies are favorable, according to Tom Patterson, a project manager at TransCanada.
Opponents aren’t waiting for TransCanada’s results. A citizens group called Friends of the Boundary Mountains showed up last month at a meeting of Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission. The group wanted a public hearing on the weather towers, but the agency declined.
Bob Weingarten, a Vienna resident and spokesman for the group, doesn’t think the mountains should be spoiled by roads, transmission lines and rows of giant towers.
"It’s a big, industrial wind- power development," he said. "They would have to rezone the tops of mountains that are now protected."
One developer has been able to overcome objections from environmentalists to win state approvals.
Evergreen Wind Power LLC, a subsidiary of UPC Wind Management of Newton, Mass., got a permit in 2004 for a 40- to 50-megawatt wind farm in Mars Hill, south of Presque Isle. It will be located on a ridge that includes cell phone towers and the Big Rock ski area.
Evergreen’s permit with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection had been appealed by the Maine Audubon Society. The group expressed concerns that migrating birds and bats would be hurt by the towers. The state denied the appeal but required Evergreen to do studies before construction. Evergreen now faces other hurdles.
Congress recently passed a production tax credit crucial to wind power developers, but it expires in 2007. That set off a scramble in the industry to buy turbines. Evergreen is trying to line up turbines, secure financing and negotiate a power supply contract, according to Dave Cowan, vice president for environmental affairs at UPC Wind Management. The company hopes to start construction this spring.
Opposition in New England isn’t restricted to mountain landscapes. The region’s most high-profile fight is taking place in Massachusetts, where developers want to place 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound. At 420 megawatts, it would be the region’s largest renewable energy project.
Critics say the project would be a visual blight that would harm birds and fish. Opponents have included Sen. Ted Kennedy and Walter Cronkite, who have island homes near the project.
Battles over views and birds have led one Maine wind energy developer to look for less controversial sites.
Weather towers will be installed this fall in potato fields near the New Brunswick border in Hamlin and Cyr Plantation. The goal is to see if there’s enough wind to support more than 200 turbines that could generate up to 500 megawatts. Towers would rise 300 feet, with 100-foot blades.
"It’s the only place in New England that’s not offshore where you can put a major wind project and it’s compatible with existing land uses," said Christian Herter, president of Linekin Bay Energy Co. in Freeport. Herter was project director for the old Kenetech proposal in the Boundary Mountains.
Another possibility may be a stretch of blueberry barrens in Township 19, in Washington County. The Passamaquoddy tribe put up a weather tower there last month and will study wind speeds for a year, according to Steve Crawford, environmental manager at the Pleasant Point reservation. The tribe also is considering a single turbine on the reservation, similar to the unit in Hull, Mass.
Meanwhile, Harley Lee was continuing his efforts last week to finally build a wind farm.
He made a presentation in Manchester, Vt., where his company wants to install five turbines on Little Equinox Mountain, the site of two former wind energy projects. More than 200 people turned out to debate the issue. "I think there’s strong interest," Lee said. "Opponents were vocal, as usual. But people will be able to make an informed decision.”