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AUGUSTA – A controversial wind farm proposal for rural Somerset County has been scaled back.
Independence Wind, the Brunswick-based developer responsible for the Highland Wind project, announced Tuesday it would reduce the number of turbines planned for mountaintops near the Appalachian Trail and Bigelow Preserve. The developer’s concession came when it submitted a revised permit application with the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission.
Many residents and business owners in Highland Plantation and the surrounding area, however, believe the revised design does not do enough to lessen the scenic, environmental and local economic effects.
New plans would eliminate 19 percent of the 48 previously-planned turbines, dropping the total to 39. The revisions would bar eight turbines from Stewart Mountain – the windiest location, but also the area closest to Bigelow Preserve, according to information filed with the state commission.
The new application also details what residents could expect from a community benefit agreement, required under Maine law. Independence Wind is proposing to give a $6,000 grant to each household in Highland for energy efficiency improvements at residences. Those improvements could include weatherization measures, installing solar panels or using an electricity-based thermal storage heating system.
As another component of the community benefit agreement, the developer is giving the state a permanent easement prohibiting wind power development on Stewart Mountain. It’s also offering $750,000 for land conservation in the project area.
The alterations to the proposal may be a business concession for the developer, but many residents still oppose wind development and view the proposed community benefit agreement as an insult, said Alan Michka, chairman of the board of the nonprofit Friends of the Highland Mountains.
“People live here specifically for the reasons they’re about to try and take away,” Michka said. “They’ve done nothing but repackage their project for a quicker sale.”
Independence Wind is led by former governor Angus King and Rob Gardiner, a former Maine Public Broadcasting Corp. president. They estimate the 39-turbine, $210 million project would produce the equivalent of the electricity used by 44,000 Maine households. At the peak of construction, it will bring more than 300 jobs and will pay more than $500,000 annually in state, local and county taxes, according to the developer.
“The only real impact is visual, and we have taken serious steps to minimize that,” King said in an interview Tuesday. “(We’ve tried) to find the right compromise between developing a major energy source in Maine and not in any way harming the recreational experience.”
But Michka and others aren’t buying it.
Highland has about 50 year-round residents – 25 households – many of whom heat with wood and have no use for an electricity-based thermal storage heating system, Michka said. Some people have just built homes and don’t need improved weatherization, while many would not be in an adequate location to reap the benefits of solar panels.
“If you look at this, you realize it’s primarily more PR for them than it is any actual value for the people in Highland,” Michka said.
He doubts, too, what kind of jobs will be created: “Most jobs will be performed by people from outside the area who are already currently employed. These are not new jobs, for the most part.”
Michka also questioned why the developer is designing the community benefit agreement and not residents, who will have to live with the changes.
Gardiner responded that the developer has latitude in designing the benefit arrangement: “There’s an option for the developer to either enter into a formal agreement with the community or to simply offer a package that meets the requirements of the law, and we’re doing the latter.”
Under the agreement, households would have the option to install heaters distributed by Thermal Energy Storage of Maine. The electric thermal storage technology uses lower-cost, off-peak electric power to heat ceramic bricks that are stored in a specially insulated cabinet. The heat is then available for use during the day.
Highland Wind would supply this electricity to residents at the equivalent of about $1.15 per gallon of oil – lower than the current $3 per gallon price.
Separate from the community benefit agreement, the company also plans to donate a larger heater unit to the Unversity of Maine’s Offshore Wind Lab in Orono to demonstrate the potential use of the heaters in commercial and industrial buildings.
“We want people to know about how these things work, and Highland is not centrally located,” Gardiner said. The university offers a public and accessible location for people to learn about the technology, he said.
Jonathan Carter, a resident of Lexington Township and director of the Forest Ecology Network, issued a release Tuesday saying the revised application is an “attempt to salvage a project which was ill-conceived when it was first proposed over a year ago and remains ill-conceived in spite of the reduction in turbines, creation of conservation easements and local energy grants.”
It will still “cause visual and sound pollution, habitat destruction, harm to wildlife, not reduce greenhouse gases, cause negative economic impacts as a result of reduced tourism and recreation as well as reduced property values for those who live in close proximity, and will significantly increase Maine citizens’ electricity costs,” Carter wrote.
King, however, said much effort went into the revisions.
“We agonized about it, frankly,” King said. “It just seemed like the right call in terms of trying to balance the visual impact against the energy production for Maine.”
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