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Rejection casts doubt on state projects

Wednesday’s rejection of a plan to erect wind turbines on two western mountains is a blow to developers of the project but not to the industry’s future in Maine, say observers.

The Land Use Regulation Commission’s rejection of the bid to put 30 turbines on Redington Pond Range and Black Nubble Mountain does, however, underscore the challenges faced by wind power.

At a time when the greenhouse effect is a household phrase, wind power – which can offer a secure source of electricity at a competitive and stable price without polluting the atmosphere – is growing rapidly.

States such as California and Texas have well more than 2,000 megawatts of wind energy capacity, according to the American Wind Energy Association, but New England has relatively little. Maine has by far the most wind power potential of any of the New England states, according to the association, but it only has about 50 megawatts of commercial generating capacity, all from 28 turbines erected this year in Mars Hill.

Kurt Adams, chairman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, said that with the New England power grid heavily dependent on power from fossil fuels, more wind energy would be good for Maine and the region.

But while the commission generally favors wind power for economic and environmental reasons, Adams said translating those benefits to reality will not be easy.

“Yesterday’s decision reflects the challenge wind developers will have finding suitable sites,” Adams said.

Lured by state and federal incentives, developers are planning projects that could create hundreds of megawatts of generating capacity in Maine, if they can find sites.

Ideally, a good site needs a steady wind and nearby transmission lines to move the power to consumers. It was clear at Wednesday’s meeting, however, that once developers find a site it may not be easy to overcome regulatory hurdles.

Still, even some who support wind power in general say the Redington project was rejected because it posed too many environmental effects. Some of the biggest objections to the plan were its visibility in a largely undeveloped and wild area and the effect it might have on sensitive mountain ecology.

Commissioner Stephen Wight, the one commissioner who voted in favor of the project, argued that the commission should look at it “holistically.”

He said commissioners should take into account not just effects on animals, such as the endangered northern bog lemming, but the project’s ability to prevent pollution from coal-fired power plants.

Other commissioners said that the regulatory body is required to measure the application under the criteria spelled out in its comprehensive land use plan. That plan, last updated in 1997, provides little direction on wind power.

Catherine Carroll, director of the commission, said after Wednesday’s meeting that the 2007 comprehensive plan will address wind.

Pete Didisheim, director of advocacy at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said he believed Wednesday’s decision was just a “bump in the road” for wind power in the state.

The council is in favor of wind energy, although it opposed erecting turbines on Redington Pond Range, home to several protected or endangered species and about a mile from the Appalachian Trail.

“I think we can develop between 1,000 and 1,400 megawatts of wind power by 2020,” said Didisheim.

First, he said the public must come to grips with the fact that it is dependent on much dirtier forms of power that are harming both the environment and public health.

Once people understand the true costs of electricity from those sources, Didisheim said he believes wind power – the fastest growing form of power in the world, he said – is destined for success in Maine.

“There are economic benefits to communities that host wind power projects and there are also a growing number of businesses and institutional users that want to buy their electricity from wind,” he said.

Raymond Mersereau, town manager of Mars Hill, said the construction of 28 turbines in his town by Evergreen Wind Power LLC offers real economic benefits.

Next year, he estimated, the project will lower his town’s tax burden by about 20 percent. And he said the turbines were also a good fit in other ways.

“This is a wind farm and this is a farming community, and we are used to farming practices here,” said Mersereau.

Land for the turbines is also being leased from local landowners, offering them a direct financial benefit.

But the project is not without effects, he said. The turbines do make a soft “swoosh” noise when the blades pass by the towers. It is a soft noise, but still an issue, he said.

And he said some have opposed the towers, saying they would “junk up” one of the most prominent geological features in Aroostook County.

But for the town council of the farming community that has watched its population drop by 25 percent since the 1960s, Mersereau said the benefits outweighed the negatives.

He said the turbines should also mean more funding for the local school, and there is also hope they will fuel a small tourism boom.

“You have got to be willing to do some change,” he said. “We loved the mountain the way it was, but you have to be willing to change with the times.”

By Alan Crowell
Staff Writer
Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel