The wind in New England blows mainly against big green-energy projects. At least that’s the assessment of Matt Kearns, an audibly frazzled project manager for Newton, MA-based UPC Wind.
Despite winning final approval last week for the creation of New England’s largest wind-energy installation, now under construction on a ridge in northern Maine, Kearns says the regulatory and political barriers to placing major cleantech facilities in the region are high enough to scare off all but the most persistent and well-funded entrepreneurs.
“The uncertainty and the costs associated with that uncertainty are pretty overwhelming, frankly, in many cases,” says Kearns, who has spent the last several years shepherding UPC’s Stetson Mountain wind farm project past the cautious scrutiny of state, county, and federal agencies, not to mention local residents and environmental groups.
“Regardless of the fact that we have had a success here, we find that the hurdles are so high, and New England is such a complicated place to do business, that it takes a full-time, highly skilled and coordinated group to make it to the finish line,” Kearns says.
Locations of UPC Wind’s Mars Hill and Stetson Mountain ProjectsUPC Wind first eyed Stetson Mountain as a potentially viable wind-farm site almost five years ago, according to Kearns. As the proposed 38-turbine project drew closer to final approval, it faced growing questions from environmental groups such as Maine Audubon, which worried that the 392-feet-tall turbines would harm birds and bats migrating over the ridge (which is about seven miles southwest of Danforth, ME). Audubon threatened to testify against the project before Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission, which is in charge of zoning for unincorporated wilderness areas in the state.
But after UPC agreed to make design changes and conduct post-construction studies of bird and bat mortality, the group withdrew its objections, and in fact recommended approval. “It took a constant conversation between all the parties, including key groups like the Natural Resources Council of Maine and Maine Audubon, to help us figure out where to be and why,” says Kearns. “I don’t think anybody would describe the process as easy.” The land use commission approved the company’s petition to rezone the land for industrial use in November and voted unanimously to give the project the final go-ahead on January 2.
When completed later this year, the facility is expected to produce 57 megawatts of peak electricity, eclipsing UPC’s 28-turbine, 42-megawatt wind farm in Mars Hill, ME, as New England’s largest. But if every wind project required five years between conception and permitting, few wind developers would bother, Kearns suggests. “We’re really pleased that we’ve gotten this far, and we think it’s in large part due to the support we saw from the commissioners,” he says. “But in comparison to the Mars Hill project, this one took twice as long and many multiples of the cost to permit. Projects take on a life of their own during the regulatory process, and as the review process gets longer, it costs more money, and it becomes very difficult to predict the outcome. That’s the thing that we think needs to be addressed, both on the regulatory front but also in terms of political leadership.”
Construction on Stetson Mountain began immediately after the commissioners’ vote last week, Kearns says. “We’re spending roughly $8 million between now and the end of March to clear the site, do some excavation work, and deliver equipment, so we’re really underway,” Kearns says. “We hope to be producing power by the summer—which is one of the great things about wind. Once you get a project approved, it doesn’t take years to build it.”
While the Stetson Mountain project was a long haul, UPC’s travails have been minor compared to those experienced by competitor Maine Mountain Power, which wants to build a similarly-sized wind farm on the opposite end of the state. Last January the land commission voted to deny a permit for a 30-turbine project the company had proposed for the Redington Pond Range and Black Nubble Mountains in the state’s mountainous western section. Opponents, including Maine Audubon, cited the threat to rare species and migrating birds, as well as the project’s location deep in the heart of one of the state’s wildest regions.
Over the summer, however, Maine Mountain Power persuaded the commission to reopen its deliberations based on a new proposal for a scaled-down wind farm on Black Nubble Mountain only. A range of organizations have endorsed the new proposal, which is still pending.
In response to industry concerns, Maine governor John Baldacci has created a state task force on wind power that’s charged with identifying barriers to wind power development in Maine and proposing policy changes to promote the industry and help developers find the most appropriate wind-farm sites. The task force has met eight times since last July and is currently considering a proposal to divide the state into so-called “green” zones, where wind power development is encouraged, and “red” and “amber” zones where development may be considered problematic.
A zone system might save precious time for wind-power companies looking to do business in Maine by steering them away from areas like the Redington Pond Range where development plans would likely meet fatal opposition. But it’s not clear that the rest of New England will follow Maine’s lead in streamlining the review process. The high-profile, 130-turbine Cape Wind project proposed by entrepreneur Jim Gordon for Massachusetts’ Nantucket Sound, for example, seems hopelessly snarled amidst local political opposition. Despite widespread public support for the project in the Bay State, the Cape Cod Commission, charged with protecting the area’s natural resources, denied Gordon a key permit in October.
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