Maine’s wind industry is being buffeted from various quarters, perhaps the inevitable result of siting wind towers in a state prized for vast forests and recreational opportunities unparalleled in the eastern United States.
As construction valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars unfolds, the industry faces legal and regulatory challenges even as it struggles to gain new financing in a post-recessionary climate where investors are cautious.
Perhaps nowhere are the stakes higher, or the positions more complex, than for the state’s major environmental groups, which have been interveners in several of the largest projects. The groups – including Maine Audubon, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Appalachian Mountain Club – are sensitive about their roles. All of them strongly support wind power as an alternative to burning fossil fuel to produce electricity. Yet they don’t favor development of every site, and occasionally disagree among themselves.
Getting a handle on what sites are most appropriate has been an evolving process over the past four years, ever since the Land Use Regulation Commission turned down a major wind power project on Redington Pond Range, overlooking Sugarloaf ski resort.
A landmark 2008 siting law that emerged from a task force convened by Gov. John Baldacci answered a lot of questions up front for developers. The agreement, as enacted by the Legislature, specified about one-third of LURC’s jurisdiction as eligible for expedited permitting, and was the result of intense negotiation among developers, state agencies and environmental groups, all of whom had seats at the table.
But it didn’t replace the permitting process and its site-specific review. Whether a wind project garners support from environmental groups and often from LURC typically comes down to where it’s being built and how its location impacts wildlife and scenic views alike.
In the vast unorganized territories where LURC has jurisdiction, the environmental groups have played a key role in determining where towers have been sited – and whether some projects have been built at all.
TransCanada – the Alberta-based energy giant that has major portfolios in hydro, petroleum, natural gas and even tar sands in western Canada – hit little resistance when developing the first two phases of its Kibby Mountain site in Maine. But its recent plans to expand have created contention among environmental groups concerned about its impact on wildlife.
TransCanada bought the leasing rights on Kibby, which lies about five miles from the Canadian border along Route 26, from a company called DKRW, which was in turn part of a lease-owner succession that included Enron and GE; the land itself is owned by Plum Creek.
The first two phases of the project, permitted together by LURC, allowed 44 turbines producing 3 megawatts apiece, for a total of 132 megawatts – the largest Maine wind farm built to date. The 3-megawatt turbines, built in Denmark by industry leader Vestas, are twice as large as the 1.5-megawatt GE turbines used by First Wind at its Stetson and Rollins wind farms. (TransCanada is considering a new, 2.5-megawatt turbine built in Iowa for future installations.)
Nick Didomenico, TransCanada’s project manager for the Kibby site who works out of Toronto, says the 132-megawatt installation has produced electricity as planned. The first 22 turbines, known as Kibby A, went online in October 2009, and the other 22, Kibby B, became operational last month.
TransCanada moved several towers and road alignments to satisfy concerns raised by Maine Audubon and its partners, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Appalachian Mountain Club, about sensitive habitat at Kibby. The debate, then and now, focused on Bicknell’s thrush, a bird that nests only in high elevations in the Northeast. All three groups are on the same page concerning Kibby, and have filed consolidated comments on all phases of the project.
But TransCanada’s push to build out the Kibby site onto adjacent Sisk Mountain has put the company and environmental groups on opposite sides, and produced an unsuccessful plan to build 15 more turbines. The environmental groups say an eight-turbine cluster on the northern side of Sisk meets the legal standards, but not the seven further to the south. LURC indicated, in a straw vote, that it would unanimously reject the plan, so TransCanada went back to the drawing board and has produced an 11-turbine plan, reducing the southern seven to four, that is scheduled for a hearing in January.
The environmental groups are still opposed, and both sides are digging in, offering sharply contrasting arguments.
“You have to wonder about a project where there’s so little flexibility,” says Susan Gallo, staff biologist for Maine Audubon, “where you can’t move a tower 20 feet without losing the wind.”
Where Didomenico points out that the project was reconfigured to meet habitat concerns, Gallo says, “Yes, they did move one tower that was right in the middle of a critical area.”
TransCanada points out that Bicknell’s thrush is not a threatened or endangered species under state or federal law, and Didomenico says an estimated 40,000 birds nest in the northeastern U.S., primarily in Maine, New York and Vermont, plus a somewhat larger population in Atlantic Canada. The five acres on which the towers would be built are a “biologically insignificant” part of the bird’s domain, he says.
Gallo says biological significance is not the state standard that must be met, rather it is “undue adverse impact.” Tower construction on that part of Sisk Mountain “is an undue impact, in our view. It’s not just about displacing birds now, but about what happens over the succeeding years and decades.”
Dave Publicover, senior staff scientist for AMC, says the concern is over the rare alpine environment in question, not just the thrush, which is simply an indicator of the presence of many other species that can be counted and observed.
He points out that the Sisk development would place towers higher than Kibby, above 3,400 feet, which means they would extend further into the habitat the groups are trying to preserve.
TransCanada is pushing ahead with the 11-turbine configuration, despite the opposition, because nothing smaller will work. “There are certain fixed costs associated with this kind of development, and the numbers don’t support a smaller project,” Didomenico says.
A matter of geography
Across the state in eastern Maine, development of three projects in Washington County has gone fairly smoothly, thanks in large part to their locations.
“The main environmental concerns about this project came from bear hunters and bird hunters,” says Matt Kearns, vice president for development of Massachusetts-based First Wind’s eastern U.S. territory, the most prominent part of which lies in Maine.
On a recent day, Kearns conducted a tour of the Stetson Mountain project, an 83-megawatt wind farm built in two stages that went online in 2008 and 2009. The developers and environmental groups have worked harmoniously at Stetson. Ted Koffman, executive director of Maine Audubon, says the area has little ecological variety, and has been extensively logged with a regrowth of mixed hardwoods that are not a major resource for rare wildlife. “In terms of wildlife, this is a boring landscape. And for wind power siting, boring is good.”
Initial reporting on Stetson’s operations, required by the 2008 law, show bird mortality has been minimal. “The bird hunters tell us that hunting is unaffected, and the bear hunting may be better,” Kearns says.
Stetson lies along low, straight ridges that average only 1,200 feet above sea level. The site is unusual in that it can hardly be seen from any existing homes or camps. At Bowers Mountain, where First Wind hopes to build a 57-megawatt wind farm, a slightly higher ridge means turbines could be seen from the relatively remote Scraggly Lake. It would have some visual impact, under the LURC standards, but First Wind believes it is within the law.
Stetson’s geography also means First Wind can use smaller wind turbines than those used by TransCanada at the Kibby site, Kearns explains. “The Stetson ridges are the first interruption in a long, level plain that extends for miles to the northwest,” he says. “We get smooth, steady wind for much of the year.” The Kibby wind farm, built at elevations between 2,700 and 3,200 feet, “is a much more challenging environment for wind. You need a bigger, more rugged turbine, and the wind is a lot more turbulent and variable,” says Kearns.
First Wind is attempting to complete a build-out of its transmission line capacity that bridges the 23-mile interval from Stetson to the Bangor Hydro grid. The two Stetson projects will be joined by a 60-megawatt installation on Rollins Mountain, where construction began in September, and a planned fourth on Bowers Mountain to the east. That would max out the 200-megawatt capacity of the transmission line and lead to the best returns for First Wind and its investors, says Kearns.
Except for Rollins, its other projects lie within unorganized townships in LURC’s jurisdiction. The Rollins project, which lies within four organized towns – Lincoln, Lee, Winn and Burlington – was subject to permitting by the Department of Environmental Protection and, where applicable, local zoning. The battle over Rollins gained significant news coverage, but the main opposition group, Friends of Lincoln Lakes, ultimately lost all its appeals, including one to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, because it lacked standing, or evidence that its members would actually be harmed by the project. Five protesters were arrested at the site earlier this month, most of whom were affiliated with the national activist group Earth first!
Raising towers, finances
Agreement among Maine’s environmental groups regarding wind development isn’t guaranteed. Such was the case with the Redington Pond Range and Black Nubble Mountain project, opposite the Sugarloaf ski resort, which was proposed by Harley Lee’s Endless Energy Corp.
Coming before the expedited permitting system, the project had major visual impacts and lots of high-altitude terrain. Audubon and AMC opposed both the original plan and a scaled-back version involving only Black Nubble. NRCM was willing to support the Black Nubble plan, but both were rejected in 2007 by LURC.
Dylan Voorhees, clean energy project director for NRCM, says its position on Black Nubble was influenced by the opportunity for permanent protection of the undeveloped portions of Sugarloaf, but says, “we’ve learned a lot” about siting wind power over the last few years.
Very few permittable sites extend as high as TransCanada’s proposal, and none have active applications or studies. While Didomenico says, “We’re always looking for opportunities for wind,” the company does not have any other development plans in Maine at the moment.
The Highlands project near the Bigelow Preserve – proposed by Independence Wind, whose principals are former Gov. Angus King and Rob Gardiner, former director of Maine’s Bureau of Public Lands – has some characteristics similar to Kibby. But, as the AMC’s Publicover points out, its elevations are lower, and only a small portion of the current plan lies within the 8-mile limit that represents a potential visual impact under LURC standards.
The aggressive approach TransCanada has taken before LURC may reflect the relatively fragile state of the industry. Stetson 2 was financed primarily by federal stimulus funds, and First Wind was unsuccessful in its recent attempt to go public through an IPO. The company had projected a $24-$26 per-share price in a bid to raise $312 million, but reduced it to $18-$20 before canceling the offer on Oct. 28. While the much larger TransCanada has significant internal resources, it too may have become more price sensitive.
Back at Stetson, Koffman of Maine Audubon looks at the revolving blades of Tower No. 1, next to the control center, and says, “It really is a sight to behold.” He doesn’t share the distaste some people have for the appearance of wind turbines, but adds, “we are respectful of those who have other views.”
In the end, wind energy and other forms of non-polluting power must go forward, he says. “It’s critical that Maine seize its opportunities to lead the transition in how we produce electricity. And we consider First Wind to be a good partner in that effort.”
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