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Wind power opponents advance legislation

AUGUSTA – A group opposing industrial windmills atop Maine’s mountain ranges has convinced several lawmakers to submit legislation that scrutinizes and reduces the speed of the state’s wind power initiative.

Wind power proponents counter that the group isn’t looking for transparency or to slow down wind development, but to stop it altogether.

Friends of Maine’s Mountains, a recently formed nonprofit, this week unveiled nine bills sponsored by seven different lawmakers that address their primary concerns about former Gov. John Baldacci’s Wind Energy Act of 2008, the initiative that fast-tracked wind power development in designated areas, including the state’s western Mountains.

At the moment the legislation is merely bill titles. However, those titles echo concerns often expressed by wind power opponents, including site permitting, insufficient notice for public hearings for proposed projects, comprehensive wildlife surveys and the belief that wind generated electricity is too costly and doesn’t justify the expense and permanency of windmills on Maine’s mountaintops.

The bill’s sponsors are both Democrats and Republicans who represent communities affected by the wind initiative.

Michael Pajak, the group’s executive director, said he hoped that new faces in the Legislature would be more receptive to their concerns.

“We think this slate of bills provides a solid case for a closer look at this phenomena of industry wind before we proceed blasting away at Maine’s mountaintops and clear-cutting for new transmission lines for a fairly intermittent and expensive form of electricity,” Pajak said.

Jeremy Payne, the executive director for the Maine Renewable Energy Association, said Friends of Maine’s Mountains is only interested in stopping one of the few industries that’s providing jobs and economic development in the state.

“They’ve hired a lobbyist and are taking donations,” Payne said. “This is not a NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) group. This is a Not in ME (Not in Maine) group.”

Payne said that most of the protections for site development the legislation is seeking are already in place. He added that wind power remained popular with Mainers, citing a poll the industry commissioned last summer showing 88 percent approval with respondents.

Payne was also quick to highlight the private investment and job creation associated with the initiative, including $750 million in capital investment; $105 million in wages paid to Maine residents; and host communities are estimated to receive nearly $95 million in community benefit agreements, property tax reductions, electricity rate cuts and other economic development programs.

Despite the organized effort and slate of anti-wind legislation, Payne said he was confident Augusta lawmakers would see that the wind initiative is worthwhile despite criticism that it was advanced to quickly.

“The benefits … are here today and provided we don’t change the rules, they’ll be there tomorrow,” Payne said.

Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, who is sponsoring three of the nine bills, said he was ambivalent about wind power. He said his legislation was designed to educate residents about the long term costs.

“I want to make sure people understand the real economics of wind power, the cost of wind power,” he said. “I will not sponsor a moratorium, nor will I sponsor a backwards look at bills. I just want everyone to understand what we’re giving up – mountaintops – and what we’re getting back.”

“I’m a forester, I’m used to natural resources being used,” he said, describing a visit to the Kibby Mountain Project. “But I wasn’t used to the permanency of those windmills.”

Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, is sponsoring a bill that would improve the permitting process. Patrick, who supported Baldacci’s wind initiative in 2008, said he now had reservations about low-level noise, wildlife surveys and the subsidies wind developers receive.

Although he initially supported the initiative, Patrick said didn’t know “if it was the best thing to do to expedite it so quickly.”

Payne and Dylan Vorhees, of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said that concerns about the pace of wind projects weren’t always grounded in fact. Payne said that some projects had 20 to 30 public hearings before moving forward.

Vorhees, whose organization consults on wildlife surveys, said the claim that some projects are rammed through the process isn’t true. He said that although Friends of Maine’s Mountains was now better organized and had a State House lobbyist, its interest still “didn’t represent the majority of public opinion” about wind power.

Nonetheless, Pajak, of Friends of Maine’s Mountains, said he was hopeful his group could persuade lawmakers in Augusta to make some changes.

“There’s a whole new set of ears and eyes on the issue, so we’re trying to seize the moment to get people’s attention,” he said.

Gov. Paul LePage has expressed reservations about the wind initiative. However, Dan Demeritt, LePage’s communications director, said the governor wouldn’t likely support a moratorium on future projects.