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Maine's approach to wind power needs change  

The Maine Land Use Regulation Commission was wise to reject the Redington Pond Range and Black Nubble Mountain wind power projects, and I hope it shows similar skepticism about the Kibby Mountain wind project proposed by TransCanada.

We are rightfully abuzz about the urgencies of climate change and energy security, but in our legitimate concern, we should not jump toward ill-conceived solutions. H.L. Mencken once said every complicated problem has a simple solution that is almost always wrong. I fear in our zeal to deal with global warming, we are reaching for solutions that may not fix the problem.

Here in Maine, we are watching a rush to turn ridgelines into power plants – not because these are the best sites, but rather because these undeveloped lands are available on the cheap. The arithmetic of wind power generation, however, takes more than just reciting the generation figures supplied by developers.

For example, unless demand is managed, adding “green power” fails to reduce carbon emissions if demand for energy continues to grow. And it will, especially in this utility environment that rewards generators for selling more electricity, and lacks incentives for conservation.

Before deregulation, utility companies promoted conservation because they couldn’t depend on recouping the cost of putting more generators online. Since deregulation, one never hears of conservation programs from Maine’s utilities. What’s happened with cars should also be avoided. In the last 20 years, automobile fuel efficiency has improved, but we’re now powering larger cars with more horsepower. Gas mileage hasn’t improved at all.

Then there is the complex math and physics of transmission grids. The yield from a power generator drops over the distance power travels. Siting wind towers in remote parts of the state, then, is less efficient than similar projects closer to users. Furthermore, mountains are expensive to build upon because of the infrastructure – roads, transmission lines – required.

There is also the problem of “line congestion.” Power lines can only transmit so much, and in Western Maine, power generated by wind will compete with other renewable sources to enter the grid. We cannot take attractive output claims at face value.

Last, but perhaps most important, is the issue of land and wildlife protection. The protected mountain zones where these wind farms have been proposed are protected from development by law, because the habitat is seen as fragile and valuable. Disturbances heal slowly, and these areas are home to many protected plant and animal species.

They also are often part of the vital cultural and economic heritage of our state. Our recreation and our economy are shared by all, and depend on the protection of these areas, which are ill-suited to industrial development.

I believe Maine needs to do some homework before turning a fragile mountain ridge into a wind farm. All potential wind sites should be inventoried; Maine has many areas with wind resources.

Some are too fragile or expensive to build upon, while some – like Mars Hill and the proposed Linekin Bay project – are prudent choices. They have been developed near existing infrastructure and consumers.

We also need to formulate a coherent, coordinated state energy policy that evaluates our needs, what can we accomplish through conservation, and our needs for additional generation. Then we can turn to our inventory, and begin an informed process of site selection.

Here are two thoughtful alternatives: the Linekin Bay project, now in application stage, would site a wind farm in Aroostook County potato fields and generate up to 400 megawatts, far more than Kibby and Redington combined, to be the largest wind farm in New England. The Mars Hill project has a rated output of 40-50 megawatts.

I hiked up Kibby Mountain this past fall. The Boundary Mountain region has been logged heavily and is laced with logging roads. Nevertheless, as I looked out from the fire tower, the expanse was beautiful. Civilization was a faraway concern.

I wondered, as my eyes swept the landscape, whether we would happily strip mine our mountain tops if they had the low sulfur coal for which the energy market hungers. I hope not, and I hope we give our energy challenges the considered study they need.

The issues and the times call for leadership from our government, not the opportunism of private enterprise and feel-good proposals.

Steve Bien is a board member of Western Maine Audubon, a chapter of the Maine Audubon Society. He lives in Jay.

Lewiston Sun Journal

18 February 2007

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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