Your May 4 editorial lamented the withdrawal of Angus King’s application for his wind power project (“Nothing to cheer about in wind power setback”) and it belittled those of us who opposed the project.
Your opening line was accurate: “Opponents of wind power are no doubt celebrating.” Friends of Maine’s Mountains is cheering this reprieve, even if temporary. However, your editorial missed the point about why we cheer.
We do not blindly assume that the project’s benefits are as advertised. Your blind assumption of benefits is commonplace, and is central to the mountaintop wind power controversy. Indeed, most of us used to believe wind power is a good thing.
The project’s negative impacts grossly outweighed its meager benefits. Yes, those impacts included our unlikely but eco-significant heroes of the day, the lemming and mayfly. But our focus was the project’s glaring impacts to the environment and economy. You ignored these realities and instead invoked the pejorative: “People who don’t want to look at the tall white towers and rotating turbines …”
Reasonable people will disagree on aesthetics, and views are undeniably a premier Maine asset. But what makes mountaintop wind truly ugly is a reasoned analysis of its impacts and benefits – numbers.
When permitting any development, we always weigh impacts versus benefits. Society accepts some scarring of the earth in exchange for infrastructure that is necessary and useful. Highways, airports, bridges, factories, power lines and cell towers come to mind as indispensable developments whose impacts are worth their benefits. When we broadly value such projects, we even pay for them with our tax dollars.
King’s project was essentially a public works project. He would have taken more than $100 million in taxpayer handouts, and his project would have benefitted from myriad state policies which give competitive advantages to costly wind power. His monetary benefit would have had an impact on taxpayers and ratepayers.
King’s sprawling project threatened more than a rodent and an insect. It would have defiled protected national treasures like the Appalachian Trail and the Bigelow Preserve. Diligence in the case had revealed scores of environmental impacts as well: mountain blasting, trout and eagle kills, noise and light pollution, and clear-cuts for roads and transmission.
In addition to the project- specific impacts, the cumulative impacts of wind power can be devastating. Allowed to proliferate unfettered in Maine’s mountains, it will extinguish what six years ago was hailed by the Brookings Institution and politicians as our greatest asset: quality of place.
But what about the benefits? Your editorial alluded to the project’s benefits as dismissively as parents mentioning the tooth fairy: “If you support the idea that Maine should diversify its power base and produce power by doing something other than burning imported fuel, this (withdrawal) is nothing to cheer about.”
Bad math makes bad policy. About half of Maine’s electric generation is from natural gas, a native resource that will be reliable, clean and abundant for decades. The rest of Maine’s generation has us among the national leaders for clean and diverse electricity. Oil and coal account for less than 2 percent of Maine’s generation.
You implied that windmills can replace gas plants. That notion is as impractical as moving people to Asia on unicycles instead of a Boeing 747. If we wanted wind to replace the three modern natural gas plants that were built to replace Maine Yankee, it would require more than 2,000 turbines blanketing Maine’s mountains, every quarter-mile. This shoe-horning would forever scuttle the “Maine brand” for our robust tourism industry, as well as for iconic companies such as L.L. Bean and Poland Spring.
Tragically, while prematurely retiring the gas plants would foist unsustainable stranded costs onto ratepayers, it would be nearly impossible because the grid would still need reliable, affordable generation for the 75 percent of the time wind does not work. So carbon emissions would not even be materially curtailed. In exchange, we’d get costly public construction projects erecting infrastructure that is neither necessary nor useful, like so many bridges to nowhere.
Maine burns “foreign fuel” in vehicles and for heating. If we ever do convert to electric heating and driving, our electricity consumption would explode. In such a scenario, how could our economy afford reliance on costly electricity from wind?
The Highland Wind Project had for years been artificially buoyed by King’s disingenuous cheering about foreign oil and soldiers in Iraq, with scant honest critical analysis of impacts and benefits. If a little fly was what it took to stop that economic and environmental disaster, three cheers!
Christopher O’Neil of Portland is director of government relations for Friends of Maine’s Mountains.
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