May 11, 2011

State wind policy changes unlikely

By Tux Turkel, Staff Writer, The Portland Press Herald, 11 May 2011

AUGUSTA – Opponents of commercial wind power who want the Maine Legislature to address issues including noise, visual impacts and property values suffered a setback Tuesday when the committee that handles energy bills tabled a proposal to study those and other concerns.

The action, which was unexpected, signals that the Energy, Utilities and Technology committee is unlikely to endorse any major changes to the state’s wind power policies this year. That, in turn, reduces the chances that the Legislature will vote for any measures that would be seen as harmful to the state’s wind power industry.

The panel plans to take up the proposal again Thursday.

Earlier in this session, the committee faced 14 bills regarding wind power, drafted by activists on behalf of residents who live near operating and proposed wind farms. One overall goal was to slow the pace of development and modify the Wind Energy Act, which was passed by the Legislature three years ago.

The committee voted last week to table 13 of the bills, including a proposed moratorium on new projects and tighter restrictions on turbine noise, and incorporate the most pressing issues into a single bill. That set the stage for Tuesday’s action.

After a general discussion, the committee’s House chair, Rep. Stacy Fitts, R-Pittsfield, offered a proposal to amend a part of the wind act that requires the governor’s energy office to assess the progress of wind power development starting in December 2013. Fitts suggested moving up the date to March 2012.

In addition, Fitts wants the energy office to review several broad issues by December of 2012. They include potential problems with permitting projects, visual impact standards, ways to consider cumulative effects on natural resources, and a review of the map covering places that are eligible for expedited permits.

The committee’s Senate chair, Michael Thibodeau, R-Waldo, had another request: find out whether wind power is adding costs for Maine’s electricity ratepayers.

Fitts asked Ken Fletcher, the governor’s energy director, to estimate what his office would need to do all of the work. Time, outside experts and $20,000 or so, Fletcher estimated.

The realization that the study would cost extra money brought the work session to an abrupt halt. There’s no point in passing a study bill if there’s no funding, Thibodeau acknowledged. He moved to table the issue and look into the financial issue before Thursday.

The committee’s decision upset Monique Aniel, co-chair of the Citizens’ Task Force on Wind Power.

“The people of Maine are not being well served,” said Aniel, who noted the people who live near wind farms and came to the committee last month to testify about health problems, noise and diminished property values.

Aniel said she remains hopeful that the committee will take action Thursday.

Chris O’Neil, who represents Friends of Maine’s Mountains, said he didn’t expect much from the committee, or from the study proposal.

It’s more likely now, he said, that some of the previously scuttled bills will be revived on the floor of the House and Senate, without the energy committee’s endorsement.

“If they’re satisfied to ignore the groundswell of support for reform, they deserve to be run out of office,” O’Neil said.

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