The staff of the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission has recommended approval of a proposed $150 million wind power project in northern Franklin County.
The draft recommendation on Maine Mountain Power’s Redington wind farm was released Friday. It goes before the seven-member Commission for a vote Jan. 24.
Final approval could make Maine a leader in wind power in the region and pave the way for other projects, including the even larger TransCanada wind farm proposed for Kibby Mountain to the northwest.
The Commission staff determined after months of review that the Redington project complies with the agency’s comprehensive plan and state laws, Director Catherine Carroll said Friday.
She predicts “extensive deliberations” when commissioners meet in January. “It’s entirely now in the hands of the Commission, and we’ll find out what they do,” she said.
The draft decision recommends approval of a zoning change to allow the wind farm and its preliminary development plan.
The 90-megawatt project calls for 30 huge wind turbines on Redington Pond Range and Black Nubble Mountain, between Carrabassett Valley and Rangeley, with ridgeline roads, weather monitoring towers, and two transmission lines.
“It’s great. I’m relieved. It’s been a phenomenal amount of work,” said Harley Lee, the president of Maine-based Endless Energy, which teamed up with Edison Mission Group of California to pursue the project.
Lee has been working to site a wind power project in the area for 17 years.
“It’s the right project, at the right place, at the right time,” he said Friday. “Our energy system is broken. It’s not economically sustainable, environmentally sustainable, or socially sustainable. We need to take some big steps and I think this wind farm is a good step for Maine to take.”
Lee said that, contingent on Commission approval, site clearing could begin later this winter, with turbines coming on-line by the end of next year.
While the Redington-Black Nubble project has yet to generate electricity, it has generated plenty of controversy, based largely on its location in an area of 4,000-foot peaks, and because it would be visible from Maine’s premier hiking path, the Appalachian Trail.
Hundreds of people showed up for three days of hearings on the wind farm last August.
The project sowed fractures in Maine’s environmental community. Some organizations supported it as a generator of clean energy and antidote to global warming, others opposed it because of the potential for damage to sensitive sub-alpine ecosystems and the effect of the lighted turbines on the landscape.
The 30 turbine towers would each be 260 feet tall, with 150-foot blades, making them a total of 410 feet tall, or about a tenth the height of the mountain. They would be lighted with slow-cycling on-off red lights to warn aircraft.
Steve Hinchman, a staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, said Friday that final approval of the zoning change and development plan by the Commission could set a “critical precedent for Maine” by affirming that wind power is an appropriate use of Maine’s North Woods.
“This is a megaproject for Maine and it’s also big news for wind development. If we’re going to transition to a carbon-free economy, which we have to do to beat global warming in Maine, then we’re going to need a lot of wind power. This may be only one project, but it’s a significant step,” Hinchman said.
A 50-megawatt wind power project is under construction in Mars Hill in Aroostook County. Canadian energy giant TransCanada has said it will file for LURC permits to build a $250 to $300 million, 132-megawatt, wind farm of 44 turbines on Kibby Mountain near the Quebec border.
Pete Didisheim, the advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said Friday that he was “surprised in some regards” by the draft recommendation on Maine Mountain Power’s proposal. “It really could have gone either way,” he said.
The Council had promoted a compromise plan that would have limited the wind farm to Black Nubble mountain, while protecting loaf-shaped Redington.
That would have halved the size of the project and kept it farther from the Appalachian Trail, but neither developer nor opponents would give ground, said Didisheim.
Didisheim praised the Commission staffers for their work. “It’s a difficult balancing act between doing the right thing to deal with global warming and move ahead with clean energy and also trying to protect what’s special about Maine,” he said.
The Council, Maine’s largest environmental group, would probably not appeal if approval is forthcoming, he said: “We’ll support whatever decision the commission makes.”
Didisheim said his review of the 130-plus page recommendation showed only routine construction conditions, such as ones for access roads and transmission lines. “There’s no big surprising requirements,” he said.
The draft approval requires continued monitoring for the project’s effects on birds and bats, and also requires the developer to present a habitat protection plan for the threatened northern bog lemming.
Didisheim said he was surprised that the Commission didn’t require that the developer buy more land in the area to balance out the impact of the power project.
Jenn Burns, a staff attorney with the Maine Audubon Society, which opposed the project, said her organization is “disappointed, but we’ll be curious to hear the commissioners discuss and deliberate at length on the issue. I wouldn’t expect them to necessarily rubber stamp it.”
She said she wasn’t particularly surprised by the staff recommendation of approval. “I think that there’s been a bit of support for the project, but there’s also been a lot of strong issues raised with concerns about the project.”
By Joe Rankin
Staff Writer Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel
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