Can the promise of money and lower taxes convince a town to try wind energy and tolerate turbines?
HIGHLAND PLANTATION – One way to tell if anyone’s home here in the winter is to glance at the roof. Most of the community’s 52 residents burn wood for heat, so smoke rising from the chimney is a telltale sign.
The aromatic plumes may also be a good indicator of which households would want to participate in what’s being billed as a national demonstration project, to show how wind power can cut Maine’s high dependence on imported oil.
Energy developers want to place 39 turbines along the forested ridges in this unorganized town northwest of Kingfield.
To help win regulatory approval – and to comply with a law passed last year requiring that residents benefit from wind farms – Highland Wind LLC is offering a $6,000 “fossil fuel reduction” grant to each household.
Former Gov. Angus King and Rob Gardiner, principals of Independence Wind, which operates Highland Wind LLC, hope to persuade some residents to install electric thermal storage heaters, which would use steeply discounted electricity from the wind project to offset oil heat.
Their idea is to show how Maine eventually could warm buildings and power electric cars with local wind energy that’s generated at night, when demand on the grid is low.
But in this community, where moose and deer outnumber people, the idea is meeting with skepticism.
Some residents seem confused about how the technology would work. Others don’t see that they’d benefit, or are distrustful of electric heat in any form, and of promises made by outsiders.
Heidi Emery, who grew up here and returned with her husband to build a house and raise their six children, says that no grant could reduce the turbines’ possible health effects and scenic disruption.
“I feel like I’m waiting for a plague to happen,” she said. “No amount of money can make me feel good about that.”
Greg Drummond, who owns Claybrook Mountain Lodge, with his wife, Pat, is even more blunt.
“We consider this a bribe to get us to come around,” he said of the benefits package.
The benefits package won’t suit everyone in Highland and could change, Gardiner said.
The developer’s representatives are currently negotiating details with Highland’s elected assessors and its attorney, William A. Lee.
If homeowners don’t apply the $6,000 to fossil fuel reduction by the time three years is up, they could receive it in the form of cash, Lee said.
That would be in addition to potentially lower taxes. The wind project would pay roughly 80 percent of the plantation’s relatively high tax burden.
So far, negotiations have been “cordial and reasonably productive,” Lee said, but because there is no precedent for the benefits package, some of the legal wording has caused confusion.
THREE YEARS OF MEETINGS
King and Gardiner, a former president of the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, have been meeting with residents for nearly three years, trying to sell the wind farm and allay concerns. The small mountains that bisect Highland Plantation have some of the state’s best wind-energy characteristics, they say.
King said he hopes that residents will consider the company’s energy offer.
“People have to be willing to give it a try,” King said.
The $6,000 grant, coupled with a monthly allowance of free electricity, is meant to satisfy a new law requiring wind developers to offer tangible benefits for the host community.
The program also may improve the chances of winning a permit this year from the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission, which oversees wind development in the unorganized territories.
Highland Plantation isn’t on the way to much. There’s one paved road in and out, which dead-ends at the Dead River, near Flagstaff Lake. The only retail space, tiny Highland Store, is closed most of the year. Getting a quart of milk today involves a 17-mile trip to Kingfield or North Anson.
Many residents, like Jay Staton, have come for the solitude and mountain views.
From his patio, he can see the broad ridge of Witham Mountain to the west; Bald Mountain a mile and a half to the north; then Briggs Hill.
“Every one of those is going to be covered with wind towers,” Staton said, motioning across the frozen pond beyond his yard.
Staton is the plantation’s third assessor. He moved here from Portland in 1974. He built a house with electric baseboards, and was shocked by the first bill.
“I ran it one month and shut it down,” he said. “Then I converted to wood.”
Staton knows the storage heaters Highland Wind is offering are different than electric-resistance heat, but he’s still skeptical. His new house is heated with a wood boiler in the garage, with logs from his own woodlot. He showed off the unit, which he feeds once a day.
“It would be crazy for me to do anything else,” he said.
Sitting at his kitchen table, Staton unfolded a recent column from The Wall Street Journal. It was about how T. Boone Pickens, the billionaire energy investor, had backed away from wind investments in favor of natural gas.
“Common sense tells me that this country is subsidizing anything that says ‘green,’ and if it wasn’t for the subsidy, wind wouldn’t work,” he said.
Claybrook Lodge owners the Drummonds cater to hunters and fishermen, but also welcome cross-country skiers and Maine Audubon Society birding trips to their 130 acres of forest.
Greg Drummond wonders whether the project’s contribution is worth sacrificing the unspoiled ridgeline he and his guests gaze at from the lodge porch.
“It’s a tremendous resource to be giving up for an experiment,” he said.
Either way, Drummond won’t be heating with an electric storage unit. He cuts his own firewood. His lodge is heated primarily with a giant soapstone woodstove.
“I’ve got pretty good storage right there,” he said of the stone-clad burner radiating warmth into the den.
But not everyone heats with wood, even in the middle of the forest.
Robert Kristoff has an oil furnace in his house, which sits on the edge of the main road, looking across a field to Witham Mountain. Retired and 84 years old, Kristoff’s not bothered by the prospect of wind turbines on the ridge. It’s far enough away, he said.
But he also has no interest in the storage heat demonstration.
“To me, if it’s electric, it’s going to cost money,” he said.
OTHER USES FOR THE MONEY
Some residents say that the heater wouldn’t help them, but they could use the $6,000 in other ways.
One of them is Diane Emery, the plantation’s tax collector, who like Kristoff heats with oil. She’d also be able to see turbine towers from her house, but said she doesn’t find them offensive.
Emery supports the wind project, but said her home doesn’t have room for a new heater unit. She’d use the $6,000 to upgrade insulation.
The biggest benefit from the project wouldn’t be cheaper heat, she said, but the lower taxes.
At an informational meeting three years ago, Jo Dunphy, the plantation’s first assessor, said that made the project worth considering. At the time, she called Highland Wind “a survival project” for the plantation.
More recently, she has become more circumspect, as the issue has become controversial and drawn wider attention.
During a brief chat outside her home last week, Dunphy declined to offer a personal opinion about the project, referring questions to Lee. “It has gotten a lot bigger than we ever thought it would,” she said.
But when asked if she and her husband would be interested in electric storage heat, Dunphy said she would not.
Standing in Dunphy’s dooryard, it was easy to tell why. Wood smoke was rising from the chimney.
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