A meeting on Monday could mark an important milestone for Maine’s fledgling, but growing, windpower industry.
The seven-member Land Use Regulation Commission board is scheduled to deliberate on two windpower projects in Franklin County: Maine Mountain Power’s Black Nubble development, and TransCanada’s Kibby windpower installation. The citizen board could hand down decisions on both.
Together, those two proposals have a generating capacity of more than 180 megawatts.
When added to the existing Mars Hill installation and the recently approved Stetson Mountain project in eastern Maine, they could bring the state’s wind generating capacity to more than 280 megawatts sometime in 2009.
At that level, windpower would make up about 5 percent of the electricity in Maine, enough to have a small, but real, effect on power rates and price stability, according to one windpower advocate.
Even if both projects are not approved – the Black Nubble plan faced strong opposition from some environmental groups for its impact on sensitive habitat and scenic values – there are enough projects on the drawing board to keep the state’s industry growing well into the future, if a lack of transmission capacity and other problems can be resolved.
Catherine Carroll, director of the land use commission, said that in addition to the two wind projects on Monday’s agenda, she knows of several that are in the planning stages.
And she said anemometers – devices used to measure the winds – have been erected on all four corners of the unorganized territories.
“I don’t think this will be the last windpower project we will see,” said Carroll.
Windpower advocates say a combination of factors is drawing developers to Maine.
As states along the East Coast commit to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, Maine, which has by far the largest windpower resource in New England – much of it in the vast and largely undeveloped unorganized territories – is well-positioned to feed a large and growing market for power from renewable sources.
How much windpower the state can support, however, may ultimately be decided by the reception proposals receive from the public and regulatory agencies and whether bottlenecks in transmission capacity can be resolved.
Potentially, one windpower advocate says, the state could generate well over 3,000 megawatts of electricity from the wind – roughly 10 times the capacity of the projects that either have been approved or are up for approval.
Even at a much smaller level, windpower will have a significant impact economically.
Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, estimated that if both the Black Nubble and Kibby Mountain projects are approved, residents could be getting roughly 5 percent of their power from wind in 2009.
In terms of electricity prices, the impact of that capacity would be small at first, said Voorhees. But as more plants come online, windpower would begin to move the state away from a dependence on fossil fuels, particularly natural gas, and stabilize power rates, he added.
Electricity generated with natural gas makes up the single largest percentage – about 28 percent for Central Maine Power Co. customers – of the power used by most Maine homeowners. In recent years, the surging price of natural gas and other fossil fuels has driven electric rates higher.
“If you are using natural gas to feed the system, that is the price everybody pays for electricity,” said Voorhees.
Costs for windpower, however, are fixed once a plant has been constructed.
Windpower also creates jobs in the short-term and the long-term, Voorhees said.
The Kibby project would provide about 250 construction jobs during construction and 10 to 12 permanent jobs when it is completed, according to TransCanada.
Voorhees said the project also would offer communities about $1 million a year in property taxes. TransCanada has also offered a benefits package to the Eustis/Stratton community of about $132,000 a year.
Developers also are considering other sites to satisfy the growing need for windpower, said Voorhees.
“The developers certainly are showing interest and if Maine can find the right way to reward that interest … developers will continue to look to Maine,” he said.
Sean Mahoney, vice president and director of the Maine advocacy center for the Conservation Law Foundation, said attempts to estimate the windpower resource in Maine have pegged it somewhere between 3,000 and 9,000 megawatts – Maine now has about 3,000 megawatts of electric generating capacity.
That means that even if both projects are approved Monday by the Land Use Regulation Commission, the state will only have roughly 10 percent of the low end of its potential wind generation, according to Mahoney.
Environmentally, he said it is critical that the state develop its wind resources to combat the threat of global warming.
While transmission capacity is a significant obstacle to expanding windpower capacity in Maine, Mahoney said market forces eventually will address that issue.
Mahoney also believes technology will solve problems related to the unreliable nature of windpower – wind turbines can only produce electricity when the wind is blowing and only operate at peak capacity a small percentage of the time.
The real question, he said, is how regulators will balance the aesthetic impacts of windpower with the environmental and economic benefits when siting developments.
Dave Wilby, executive director of the Independent Energy Producers of Maine, said that while siting windpower capacity is a challenge, wind is also one of the few types of power facilities that has a realistic chance in Maine.
Siting generating capacity “is not easy anywhere and it is not easy here,” said Wilby.
A so-called clean coal plant was rejected by voters in Wiscasset late last year and Wilby said nuclear power is also a hard sell.
“There are a very limited number of choices in terms of what …. can be permitted,” said Wilby. “Although there are challenges, you have a chance with wind.”
Economically, windpower is competitive in price with gas and oil and it is getting more competitive as fossil fuels become more expensive, he said.
Despite the potential for windpower in Maine, however, the state can’t take the continued growth of clean energy for granted, according to a windpower developer.
Matt Kearns, project manager for UPC Wind, which developed the Mars Hill wind farm as well as the recently approved Stetson Mountain project, said that while there is plenty of activity right now, that doesn’t necessarily mean the same level of growth will continue.
“What you are seeing right now is the product of a lot of long-term planning and investment,” he said.
While the state has a large wind resource, Kearns said it is still a challenge to find a site that has both good wind and the transmission infrastructure to get power to markets.
“It is not just as simple as picking a place and putting up turbines,” said Kearns. “You just don’t have access to markets up here in Maine.”
Kearns said his company believes it is the right time for wind power but he said developers also face plenty of challenges, some of which are global in origin.
“Steel prices are skyrocketing. Copper prices are skyrocketing,” said Kearns.
Turbine manufacturers are essentially sold out until 2010 because of tremendous demand.
The process that ended with a Land Use Regulation permit for the Stetson Mountain project took about five years and a lot of investment, he said.
UPC is committed to bringing more windpower to market, said Kearns, but he added that finding good sites and getting them approved is an arduous process.
“We are in it for the long haul, but we are pacing ourselves,” said Kearns.
By Morning Sentinel staff
13 January 2008
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