Conflict in the wind: Some say proposed wind farms would yield too little power to justify the harm they would cause
There’s no doubt that Mainers want more windmills.
A poll of 400 Maine voters last May found 85 percent favored the development of wind power in Maine, according to the Portland-based Pan Atlantic SMS group. The poll had a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.
You wouldn’t know it, however, from the debate that gets whipped up nearly every time a wind farm is proposed here.
While the projects are pitched as a step toward energy independence and slowing global warming, opponents answer back that the turbines, roads and transmission equipment would do too much harm.
It’s a struggle between global benefits and local costs and between competing environmental priorities. It’s also one that will culminate around the state over the coming weeks.
A public hearing is scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday on the proposed Black Nubble wind farm near Sugarloaf, a plan that has divided the state’s largest environmental groups. Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission will hold another hearing Oct. 2 and 3 on a proposed Kibby Mountain wind farm, also in
Franklin County. The commission is expected to issue its decision on a third project, on Stetson Mountain in Washington County, this fall.
Developers are exploring other projects, including putting turbines in Aroostook County potato fields. Former Gov. Angus King and a partner are eying a ridgeline in Roxbury and Byron in Oxford County.
Wind energy is the fastest-growing energy sector in the United States and the world, with capacity expanding at a rate of about 25 percent a year.
Maine has the strongest and steadiest winds of all New England states, and is one of the top 20 states in terms of wind potential nationwide, according to the industry. It already is home to New England’s first large-scale modern wind farm – 28 turbines lined up along the sloping ridge of Mars Hill in Aroostook
Advocates say Maine ultimately could generate 10 percent or more of its energy from the wind, but that won’t be easy, judging by the opposition to specific proposals here.
A study completed this year by the National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, found conflicts like those in Maine are widespread because of a fundamental reality of wind power. The environmental costs – visual impacts, noise, landscape and wildlife disturbances – are primarily felt by those near the wind farm. The benefits, however – reduced global warming emissions and other air pollution, less dependence on foreign oil and less mining and drilling – are felt more on the global scale.
“Benefits and (costs) don’t necessarily affect the same people,” said David Policansky, who directed the study. “If you talk to a national representative of an environmental organization, it’s quite likely that person will be in favor. Whereas, when you talk to a local representative, it is more likely that person will be opposed to some local project.”
It’s a dynamic that is clearly playing out in Maine.
“Essentially, the benefits go to other states, where we now have to put up with all these wind developments on our landscape,” said Stephen Clark of Shapleigh, an opponent of the 18-turbine Black Nubble project near Sugarloaf.
“I don’t see that Maine people are going to get that much out of it.”
Clark leads the wind power committee of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, which opposes the wind farm because the 400-foot-tall towers would spoil views from one of the most pristine sections of the trail.
“They’ll be visible from points all the way from Bigelow to Saddleback. That’s about 30 miles. At every outlook, you’ll have those in your face,” Clark said.
Other opponents of Black Nubble, including Maine Audubon, are more focused on preserving rare wildlife habitat atop Black Nubble. The mountain’s peak is above 3,500 feet in elevation.
“There are much larger projects that will produce more power that we are supporting,” said Jody Jones, a wildlife ecologist with Maine Audubon. “You probably couldn’t pick a site with more conflicts.”
CRITICS STRESS NEED TO CONSERVE
Critics say Black Nubble and other wind projects have been oversold to a public that is hungry for global warming solutions.
Wind projects and other energy plants are typically described according to their maximum generating capacity. Black Nubble, for example, is proposed as a 54-megawatt wind farm. A modern natural gas plant might be rated at about 500 megawatts or more.
While a gas or nuclear plant can operate at close to its capacity most of the time, however, a wind farm can generate electricity at its capacity only when the wind is blowing at precisely the right speed, not too fast and not too slow. On average, a wind farm can expect to operate at about 30 percent of capacity. In the case of Black Nubble, that would be 16 megawatts.
Also, unlike a gas- or coal-burning plant, the wind can’t be turned up when energy demand goes up. Wind farms, therefore, cannot replace so-called base-load energy plants that need to be ready to meet demand.
Some critics say those limitations mean wind farms are not the answer to global warming and do not automatically trump other environmental priorities, such as preserving mountaintops.
Simple conservation steps would prevent more fossil fuel use than the Black Nubble wind farm and would not destroy any resources, according to Clark.
“If you took every Maine resident and (had them) unscrew one 100-watt bulb, it would save much more,” he said. “Wind power is much more symbolic than it is real in terms of solving global warming.”
BACKERS CITE DISPLACEMENT BENEFIT
Wind advocates agree that the technology won’t solve global warming on its own, but they say it is absolutely a real part of the solution.
“What we do know about wind power is that once we build these projects, (the power) will always go into the electrical grid and will always displace another form of power that does more environmental harm,” said Peter Didisheim of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “Our goal is to keep the dirty old plants operating at as low a capacity as possible.”
While windmills are big and conspicuous, people don’t always see the much more severe environmental damage of other energy sources, he said. Also, there are immediate costs in addition to the looming effects of global warming, he said.
“Eleven percent of electricity in New England comes from coal, including coal from northern Appalachia” where coal-rich mountaintops are being blown off with explosives, he said.
“We don’t think about the communities and individuals and the environment that are suffering because of our electricity use that comes from coal,” he said.
Wind power can’t stop global warming, but it can help and it’s available now, according to Didisheim.
The Natural Resources Council is a leading supporter of the Black Nubble project and argues that its effects on the western mountains will be far outweighed by the clean energy benefits.
As small as the Black Nubble wind farm would be, it still would generate more power than most hydroelectric dams in Maine, he said.
“I think there’s a false notion out there that there’s some silver bullet just waiting to be used,” he said. “We don’t have that single bullet. We’re going to need probably 20 different 5 percent solutions.”
Gordon Weil of Harpswell, an author and former head of Maine’s Office of Energy Resources, said wind realistically should be seen as a small part of the state’s future energy mix, but an important one.
“Too many people oversell it as solving all of our problems and too many people say, ‘If it doesn’t solve all of our problems, it’s not worth doing.’ And neither of them is right,” he said.
“People who say we shouldn’t do it because it’s so small, I could not disagree more with them,” Weil said. “Clearly there is a role for wind power.”
Gov. John Baldacci is hoping Maine moves forward with wind energy, too. In response to the resistance to specific plans, Baldacci created a study commission to recommend policies he hopes will encourage wind development in appropriate places.
The commission has met three times. Its report is due in January, but it probably won’t have any influence on the three major wind farms likely to be approved or rejected by the end of this year.
By John Richardon
HERE ARE UPCOMING wind farm public hearings to be held by the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission. Both hearings will be held at the Sugarloaf Grand Summit Conference Center in Carrabassett Valley.
WEDNESDAY AND THURSDAY: Black Nubble wind farm in Redington Township, Franklin County. Public comment periods will begin at 6 p.m. The staff presentation and petitioner and intervener testimony will take place during the day, starting at 8:30 a.m.
Maine Mountain Power’s application and the notice of public hearing can be viewed at Redington project OCT. 2 AND 3: Kibby Mountain wind farm in Kibby Township and Skinner Township, Franklin County. Public testimony will be taken at 6 p.m., with presentations and petitioner and intervenor testimony during the day.
TransCanada Maine Wind Development Inc. application and other information can be found at LURC news
17 September 2007
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