Citizens groups that are fighting commercial wind power projects around the state will gather Saturday in Freeport for a first-ever summit aimed at advancing their goals this year in the Legislature.
At least 100 people representing 13 groups will attend the all-day event at the Harraseeket Inn. They will learn about 20 or so proposed laws, which range from temporarily banning wind power development to requiring greater proof of project benefits.
Three years ago, when oil prices were setting records and state government was controlled by Democrats, Maine passed a sweeping law to expedite wind power development.
The law and related measures have largely frustrated local attempts to defeat wind projects, the summit’s organizers say, and have compelled state regulators to go “by the book.”
This year’s shift to a Republican governor and Legislature offers a chance to challenge the premise of wind power in Maine, they say.
“Opponents have come to the conclusion that if they don’t like the book, they should change the book,” said Chris O’Neil, a lawyer in Portland who represents one of the citizens groups, Friends of Maine’s Mountains.
Better organization by a vocal minority shouldn’t be interpreted as growing public opposition, said Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association. The trade association, which represents contractors and project developers, is sending a message designed to resonate with Maine’s business-focused government: Wind power is providing jobs and investment at a time when few other industries are stepping up.
For example, the Reed & Reed construction company in Woolwich announced Thursday that it has erected 200 turbines in New England, 190 of them in Maine.
The energy association will make a pitch to lawmakers and Gov. Paul LePage at the State House on March 3, during its annual Maine Wind Day event.
“It will help bring home what they’ve heard about the benefits of wind power in Maine,” Payne said.
Maine has 195 turbines that are up or under contract, according to Payne. The work represents a total investment of $946 million. Although 60 percent of that is for turbines and towers made elsewhere, the remaining $378 million is being spread around hundreds of Maine communities and has helped support an average of 240 jobs a year since 2003, according to the industry’s calculations.
But much of the investment comes from tax dollars that help subsidize the projects, say O’Neil and other opponents of wind power. They also say that Maine isn’t benefiting from the electricity produced by most of the projects. That power is more costly now than gas-fired generation, and typically is sold out of state.
Those and other talking points will be discussed and refined Saturday at the strategy summit. Participants will get a primer on the bills, how to express their concerns to key lawmakers, and how to testify at public hearings before legislative committees.
“We aren’t approaching this as an anti-wind summit,” said Karen Bessey-Pease, one of the organizers. “It’s about protecting the financial, health and environmental rights of Mainers.”
Topics of the bills include how sites for turbines are selected and wind power’s impact on electricity costs. Except for the moratorium bill, none of the proposed laws would stop wind power development, Bessey-Pease said.
The change of command in Augusta gives lawmakers a chance to reconsider policies that have put wind power development on a fast track, said Jonathan Carter, director of the Forest Ecology Network.
A closer look at the above-market price of wind-generated electricity also may lead LePage to question its benefits, Carter speculated. “My sense is, he’s not interested in wasting taxpayer dollars,” Carter said.
Payne countered that prices for electricity generated from fossil fuels can rise quickly, but wind power is stable for the life of the project. Opponents who claim they want to refine the wind development process have other ambitions, he said.
“I don’t think their goal is to improve the wind energy act,” he said. “It’s to kill the industry in Maine.”
Payne pointed to a poll, paid for by his group last year, that showed 88 percent of Mainers supported wind power development. There’s no reason to believe that support has diminished, he said.
“Their voices may be growing louder,” he said of opponents, “but their numbers aren’t growing larger.”
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