A state task force has drafted a road map that it says will make Maine a major generator of wind power.
The group’s draft report calls for streamlined regulatory review of wind power projects in most regions of the state so that 1,000 or more turbines could be set up by 2020. It also identifies important scenic areas – places such as Baxter State Park, Acadia National Park and the Appalachian Trail – that would be protected from the visual impacts of wind farms.
“This is a major step forward,” said Alec Giffen, director of the Maine Forest Service and chairman of the Governor’s Task Force on Wind Power. “It’s going to put Maine in a position to be a leader in wind power and it’s going to preserve Maine’s quality of place.”
Task force members were still negotiating details in the draft report Friday, but they are expected to deliver a final version to Gov. John Baldacci next week. The group is under pressure to finish its work in time for the Legislature to put the plan into law before its session ends in April.
To no one’s surprise, new visual impact standards for future windmills were the most difficult issue for the task force, which includes top state officials, representatives of the wind power industry and environmental advocates. The standards should reduce the recurring conflicts that have slowed wind development around the state, according to task force members.
“This has been a very intractable issue, not just in Maine but also in other parts of the country where people really value their landscape (like) people in Maine do,” Giffen said. “I hope it’s going to chart a course that makes this a lot smoother sailing.”
Maine, with a 42-megawatt wind farm in Mars Hill, leads New England in wind development but ranks 24th nationwide. The Stetson Mountain project in Washington County is expected to add 57 megawatts this year.
Studies of wind conditions in the mountains and along the coast indicate huge potential for generating more clean energy here, and the task force report says Maine could realistically join the top tier of states, led by Texas and California.
Maine should seek to host at least 2,000 megawatts of wind power capacity by 2015, and 3,000 megawatts by 2020, according to the task force report.
That’s the equivalent of 1,000 to 2,000 400-foot-tall turbines around the state by 2020, Giffen said. “These things are going to be showing up in a lot of places.”
Wind turbines are part of a larger plan to reduce the state’s dependence on fossil fuels, which contribute to air pollution and global warming.
Along with conservation and other forms of renewable energy, wind power is needed if the state is to meet its goal of reducing global warming pollution to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, officials said.
The final task force report will include a map of the regions where proposed wind farms would get speedier review by state agencies as a way to encourage more development. Studies of wildlife impacts would still be required, but visual impacts would be considered only under special circumstances.
The areas for expedited review cover all of Maine’s cities and towns, including the entire coast. They also include the outskirts of the unorganized territories in rural northern Maine, where wind farms would, in most cases, no longer require rezoning or have to “fit harmoniously” into the landscape, as now required.
The report will identify areas of state and local significance where scenic impacts should still be analyzed and considered. Those areas will include state and national parks, as well as mountains or lakes that have been identified as important scenic resources.
“This type of development does not get a complete waiver,” said Jody Jones, a wildlife ecologist with Maine Audubon and a task force member. “We need to protect the special places in Maine.”
The task force will not recommend ruling out turbines within sight of those places but will instead focus on unreasonable impacts. “The issue is not whether or not you can see them, but whether the impact is acceptable,” Giffen said.
Offshore wind farms represent huge potential for the state and should be operating by 2020, according to the draft report. But coastal waters were not included as expedited-review areas because the technology is untested and there will be unique technical and regulatory challenges.
“The maps clearly show the significant resources out there,” said Kathleen Leyden, the state’s Coastal Program manager and a task force member. “And there are things we should be doing now to aggressively prepare for the possibility of offshore wind.”
The wind development industry has been supportive of the report, while monitoring last-minute changes, said Dave Wilby, executive director of the Independent Energy Producers of Maine and a task force member.
By clarifying and modernizing the rules and mapping areas where wind power would be encouraged, the plan would reduce the risk of a developer investing in a project that hits a wall of opposition. “Predictability is essential,” Wilby said.
The state will need more electricity capacity if it intends to meet its ambitious goals, a challenge that was outside the scope of the task force, Wilby said. But the report should help lower one of the two major barriers to wind development in Maine, he said.
The task force report will help Maine reduce or avoid conflicts by planning ahead, said Pete Didisheim, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine and a task force member.
“There’s a very strong level of support for wind power in Maine,” Didisheim said. “But people want to be sure the projects are going in the right places.”
By John Richardson
9 February 2008
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