The long and contentious debate over the Redington wind plant is coming to a head. The LURC staff has issued a recommendation that the project be approved. Now all that remains is for the LURC commissioners to decide whether to accept that recommendation at their special meeting on Jan. 24. If they accept it, construction on 1,000 acres of protected summits and ridgelines above 2,700 feet will begin.
Although the commissioners rarely vote to oppose the staff, there are many reasons in this case that might lead them to do so. The staff recommendation is a surprisingly one-sided document. The staff is supposed to reach its conclusions through a fair and full consideration of both sides of the record. Instead, the recommendation restates the applicant’s arguments repeatedly while failing to do justice to, or even omitting, key pieces of the opposition’s evidence. One of the most egregious examples is that the petition against the project signed by 1,864 people was not even mentioned in the recommendation until a complaint was lodged with the LURC director. Above all, the recommendation shows little evidence of intellectual engagement with the serious issues of the debate. Readers who wish to check the accuracy of my assessment can find both the recommendation and the transcript of the August hearing on the LURC Web site.
A powerful motive behind the staff (and much of the public) support for the project is the belief that it is urgently needed in order to reduce emissions from fossil fuels and to combat global warming. This belief apparently trumps all other concerns – the law that protects the area from development, the environmental damage that will undeniably result from heavy construction on the fragile ridges, the intrusion of industry close to the Appalachian Trail in one of Maine’s most spectacular mountain ranges, the potential harm to the area’s economy, which depends increasingly on tourism, and so on.
Public need is, in fact, one of the principal criteria by which LURC is supposed to judge a project of this kind, and effective measures to reduce emissions are surely needed. But do we need the proposed wind plant on Redington – this particular development? This is the very different and specific question that the commissioners must answer. Their job is not to answer the question, do we need wind power somewhere, but rather do we need it here in this highly sensitive site? Testimony presented at the hearing by Thomas Hewson, an environmental and energy consultant with 30 years of experience, indicates that we do not. His testimony can be summarized under two headings:
1. The Redington plant will not prevent any incremental emissions because it is competing against another renewable plant, not against a fossil fuel plant, for a place in the market. Because of wind power’s high cost, the market for it is a limited, niche market, dependent on subsidies and mandates such as production tax credits, renewable energy credits, and renewable portfolio standards. But these financial incentives are so lucrative – ask Edison International – that they ensure the construction of as many wind plants as the market will bear. In other words, no particular plant can be described as “needed” – especially not one in a bad site – because if it is not built, another one will be. Indeed, there is no shortage of good wind sites in Maine. Not counting Mars Hill or Redington, there are around 700 megawatts of new wind in planning stages in Maine, most of this projected capacity in apparently unproblematic sites. Why should we permit Redington when we can confidently wait for better projects?
2. The Redington site is not really well-suited to reducing emissions. Because of its particular location within the New England power grid and because of the generation mix in the Central Maine Western Transmission area, which is already heavily endowed with renewable generation and plagued by transmission congestion, the Redington plant would almost certainly displace other renewable power (from the Stratton biomass plant and the Wyman and Harris hydro plants) before displacing fossil fuel power. In Hewson’s expert opinion, “a renewable project in any other New England sub-area” would likely be more effective than Redington at reducing emissions.
All of this – and much more – is amply clear in the testimony but either missing or misunderstood in the staff recommendation. To arrive at a proper decision on Jan. 24, the commissioners are going to have to look behind the staff recommendation to see whether the record really supports the belief that this particular plant is needed. Furthermore, they are going to have to keep in mind a key principle that according to their own rules is supposed to guide them – namely, that the burden of proof in an application for rezoning falls on the applicant.
Dain Trafton of Phillips is a retired professor of literature and one of the founders of Friends of the Western Mountains. He has represented that group as an intervener in the Redington-Black Nubble hearings.
Dain Trafton is a member of the Board of Directors of National Wind Watch.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding