Eight months after their first application for a windpower project in Highland Plantation was suspended by state regulators, developers are back with a new plan. This time, former Gov. Angus King and former MPBN President Rob Gardiner say their revised project could be a model for how renewable wind power can cut Maine’s, and the nation’s, dependence on foreign oil. The project is also being scaled back in size.
In April the Land Use Regulation Commission found that developers had not sufficiently demonstrated “right, title and interest” in the property, as required by law, and the project was put on hold. King says that issue has now been resolved.
“Central Maine Power owns a right-of-way and we have made a deal with them to piggy-back on their right-of-way, so that issue has been resolved,” he says.
Planned for an area in Somerset County not far from the high peaks of Bigelow Mountain, the Sugarloaf ski resort and the Appalachian Trail, the Highland Wind power project initially called for 48 turbines, the closest of which would have come within two miles of Bigelow Preserve.
The new application includes $750,000 for land conservation, gives the state a permanent easement prohibiting windpower development on the highest peak and reduces the number of turbines to 39. King says those remaining will be further away from Bigelow and the trail.
“There are a few viewpoints, particularly on Little Bigelow, where the turbines will be visible but in the overall scheme of the view from that area–and I climbed it myself last summer–it’s really not a substantial impact compared with, for example, Sugarloaf itself or the transmission line that’s already running through the property or the Carrabasset Airport. We’re talking about turbines pretty far in the distance.”
King says eliminating some turbines will cut about 25 percent of the project’s planned energy production. It’s a sizeable decrease but one King says he and his partners thought was necessary to compromise.
Their initial application generated concern from several groups, including the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Friends of Highland Mountains and Jonathan Carter of the Forest Ecology Network, who says his farm is about three-and-a-half miles away from the closest turbine.
“This is no compromise,” Carter says. “Angus and Rob’s new application for industrial mountaintop wind on the Highland Mountains is simply an attempt to salvage a project which was ill-conceived when it was first proposed a year ago, and it remains ill-conceived in spite of turbine reduction and in spite of some of the conservation easements and in spite of the local energy grants.”
Instead, Carter calls the new application “window dressing” in an attempt to influence public opinion and the LURC decision-making process.
“Their proposal is basically an ecological disaster and an economic boondoggle–an effort on the part of these mountain-slayers and profiteers to feed at the federal subsidy trough of our tax dollars,” Carter says. “And it’s just going to raise our electric rates.”
A key component of the new application is the inclusion of something called the “Wind for Oil” program that will be made available to the two-dozen or so homeowners in Highland. Each will be entitled to a $6,000 “fossil fuel reduction” grant that they can use to apply toward energy efficiency improvements, such as the addition of solar panels or the installation of electricity-based thermal storage heating systems known as ETS. It’s a technology that is common in Europe, parts of Canada and about half of the states.
“It’s essentially–it’s like the old Russian fireplace idea,” King says. “It’s a solid, high-density brick object that looks like a woodstove, it looks sort of like a Monitor heater. And essentially the idea is it will absorb electrical energy at night when there’s an excess of electricity, and then give it off during the day. It absorbs the energy into the bricks, the bricks get hot and during the day they radiate heat.”
King says as part of an ETS demonstration project, Highland Wind will supply electricity to residents at a discounted cost equivalent to about $1.15 per gallon of oil and well below the going rate of more than $3.00 per gallon. He says the typical household would see a 600-gallon reduction in annual oil use.
“We are just thrilled with what Angus is doing because he gets it, he absolutely understands the way to end Maine’s dependence on oil is to move in the direction of electrification,” says Sam Zaitlin, the president of Thermal Energy Storage of Maine, which is about to formally launch its business early next year.
Zaitlin says if the Highland Wind power demonstration project is successful, it could have big implications for the rest of the state. As part of the project, a larger ETS unit is being donated to the University of Maine’s Offshore Wind lab to demonstrate the potential of ETS for heating commercial and industrial buildings.
A call to the Friends of Highland Mountains was not returned by airtime. And a staff scientist with the Appalachian Mountain Club said his group had not yet seen the latest application.
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