UNITY – A live call-in program with organizers of the Common Ground Country Fair that aired on WERU in early September opened with some decidedly uncontroversial banter about the upcoming event, but took a turn when a caller questioned the inclusion of a certain Massachusetts-based wind energy developer among the fair’s exhibitors.
“Could someone explain how First Wind fits in with the philosophy of the Common Ground Fair?” she said.
Another caller described the predicament of residents around the state fighting for their property rights against wind energy developers, also mentioning First Wind by name. “Just them being there is troublesome,” she said. “First Wind hasn’t done stuff in a sustainable way. It just doesn’t work for me.”
Fair Director Jim Ahearne didn’t seem bothered by the objections, explaining that the inclusion of First Wind was neither intended to draw controversy, nor was it an endorsement of the wind energy developer.
“Our overall premise is to get people talking and promote dialog,” he said. “…This is such an important issue that we think it’s important to have them there. They’re there. They’re not hiding behind a PR person.”
If the Common Ground Fair had ever been accused of catering to the like-minded, Ahearne’s response suggested the potential for a healthy debate, or at least some good old-fashioned soap boxing. Maybe the wind energy concerns would even stand out among the hundreds of other offerings.
First Wind is currently building its fourth wind farm in Maine – the 60-megawatt Rollins Wind development, which runs through several Penobscot County towns – and the company has six other wind farms either operating or under construction in Vermont, New York, Utah and Hawaii.
Typically built under the auspices of limited liability companies – Evergreen Wind, King Pine Wind and Kaheawa Wind, to name a few of the roughly 75 First Wind subsidiaries documented by the watchdog group Citzens’ Task Force on Wind Power – the company’s developments could easily be mistaken for unique, local projects.
By referring directly to the parent corporation, the callers’ comments seemed calculated to amplify the contrast between the fair’s traditional focus on small, local, community-based concerns and what detractors often call “big wind.”
Sometime between the call-in show and the fair, First Wind dropped off the list of exhibitors on the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s website, but there were other glitches in the details of the sprawling program, so it seemed plausible that First Wind representatives would still be there. Several phone calls to First Wind and a missed call from the company later, and the question remained unanswered in advance of the fair’s opening day.
Only a visit to the fair could gauge official and unofficial interest in wind and it’s rightful place at the annual Celebration of Rural Living.
Among the acres of grass outside the fairgrounds, partitioned by stakes and twine, that serve as a parking lot for the annual Common Ground Country Fair, Wallace Hill II and his wife Lynn were wondering if it would be OK to leave their dog in the car. After waving them toward a space at the end of one aisle, a parking attendant had apparently noticed the dog and shouted, “No Pets!” after them.
The couple had vacationed in Maine for 15 years but had never been to the Common Ground Fair until last year, when they heard about it for the first time from a local merchant. Lynn Hill’s thought upon arriving at the fair, which typically draws around 60,000 people over the course of a three-day weekend, was: “Where do all these people come from?”
The Hills came from North Carolina. Their license plate, which included a graphic of the Wright Brothers flight at Kitty Hawk and the slogan “First in Flight,” read “2ND WND,” though Wallace said it had nothing to do with industrial wind developer First Wind.
He’d been through a messy divorce, he said, and lost a beloved home in the process. Sometime after moving into a new one, he recalled, there was a moment when he was standing inside with the windows open and noticed a breeze blowing through the house.
“That was my second wind,” he said.
Hill liked the idea enough that he named his insurance business, his car and some other things after it.
Asked if there were wind farms in North Carolina, Wallace said there have been some proposals to put turbines in the mountainous western part of the state.
“They’re talking about it,” he said.
The marginal utility of coffee
On a piece of private land strategically located between the parking lot and the fair, Doug Hufnagel, who does business as “Coffeeman,” was among a number of vendors who for one reason or another were not on the fair roster but wanted to take advantage of the crowds.
Hufnagel’s reason, for years, had to do with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s strict requirement that food vendors use only ingredients grown or raised in Maine. The effective ban on coffee, though an incidental byproduct of the rules, routinely puzzled first-time fairgoers in the habit of engaging Mother Earth with a light caffeine buzz.
Coffee is now served at the fair. But the Coffeeman trailer, which has become the rough equivalent of an anchor store in the duty-free zone outside the fairgrounds, has stayed put.
Hufnagel was unaware of the controversy surrounding First Wind’s appearance at the fair, but he pointed to a small wind turbine mounted on the roof of his trailer. His was the “first wind-powered coffee cart in the world,” or something along those lines, he said.
Walking around the back of the trailer, he opened a hatch to reveal a large pair of dry cell batteries. The system, which he built himself, generates enough energy in transit to power his lights, water system, and the stereo system that lends the Coffeeman trailer the ambiance of its brick-and-mortar counterparts.
“Yeah, wind power,” he said. “Wind power is good.”
But for whom?
Inside the fairgrounds, where niche topics like European scythe sharpening and Native American porcupine quillwork get equal billing alongside heavy hitters like trade unions and pottery, finding any particular exhibitor, especially one not appearing on the program, seemed like it would take some time.
Among the three tents marked for Social and Political Action, were Alan and Kay Michka, who were carrying the flag for grassroots opposition to industrial wind, via their organization Friends of the Highland Mountains.
The Somerset County-based group incorporated in 2009 to oppose a wind farm proposal from Independence Wind, the company founded by former Maine Governor Angus King and former Maine Public Broadcasting Network President Rob Gardiner.
The Friends’ principal objection to Highland Wind, as the proposed development is known, centers on the “visual pollution” the turbines would create along the area’s ridgelines. This was depicted in several composite images on the group’s triptych display.
There was also a map of Maine pierced with clusters of pins indicating existing wind farms. To the side of the map was a reserve of pins in neat rows, each representing a turbine that would need to be erected to meet former Gov. John Baldacci’s goal of 2,700 megawatts of land-based wind power by 2020.
The wider view of the state taken by the Friends could be partly attributed to the five additional wind energy proposals that were rolled out in neighboring towns and townships on the heels of Highland Wind, including one from First Wind, doing business as Blue Sky East.
Alan Michka said Friends of the Highland Mountains is not opposed to wind energy, but rather the approach that’s been taken in Maine, where he said wind farms have been sited too close to inhabitants.
Like a lot of people who end up opposing wind developments, Michka said he hadn’t thought much about wind power until he heard of a project being planned close to home – in this case, the proposed 39-turbine Highland Wind development near his hometown of Lexington – at which point he started scouring the Internet for answers to his questions.
“I started looking into large [turbines] and it just started to alarm me,” he said. “Go any place in the world where they are close to people and there are problems.”
Earlier in the day, Michka had presented his concerns in a featured talk titled “Is Big Wind Big Trouble?” He had done a similar presentation last year and said nobody came. This year, he said, the tent was full.
“If we’re going to do anything, it should be an energy source that’s critical. But nobody can give us reasons aside from: It’s jobs,” he said. “It’s providing this guy [a hypothetical person in the wind energy industry] with the ability to keep his family in Maine.”
Michka, who is pilot for Fed Ex, said he didn’t think First Wind had a booth at this year’s fair but noted that an industry group called Wind Power for Maine did. While giving testimony earlier this year on a bill that would have loosened regulations on wind developments, he recalled using the wordplay in the group’s name – written as Wind Power for ME – to suggest what he sees as the selfish motives of wind energy companies.
“It’s wind power for me,” he said, stressing the last word and pointing to his chest like a caricature of a rich man.
They’re talking about us
The Wind Power for ME booth turned out to be located in an area on the opposite side of the fairgrounds devoted to Energy and Shelter. In contrast to the shady gauntlets of Political and Social Action, the yellow and white striped Energy and Shelter tent seemed to reinforce the message of its constituency, generating enough solar gain that, upon emerging from the tent, visitors could be seen taking deep breaths of the outside air.
Jeremy Payne, executive director of Maine Renewable Energy Association, the group behind Wind Power for ME, was inviting visitors to fill out index cards that appeared to be part petition, part mailing list solicitation and part raffle ticket. A large, clear acrylic bowl held the completed cards.
A laptop played a DVD espousing the promise of wind power. There were hats and belt buckles emblazoned with “Reed & Reed,” the builder of nearly all of the state’s industrial wind farms. The table suggested a booth at a trade show, with its implicit bargain of a moment of the visitor’s time in exchange for some branded schwag.
“What about wind power for me?” one fairgoer joked, approaching the table.
Payne was ready with a line that he would use repeatedly that day.
“The turbines are right out back,” he said. “If you want to pull up your truck, I’ll help you load it up.”
During a break in the steady flow of visitors, Payne talked with me about MREA, which he initially described as “a loose-knit group of folks that support wind,” then “an advocacy group,” and later a “professional trade group.”
What about “Lobbyist?”
Payne said that was a fine description, and quickly volunteered that he is registered as one with the state.
“Advocacy is part of the game,” he said. “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you may be part of the meal.”
Asked if he knew anything about First Wind having a booth at the fair, Payne said, “They’re talking about us.”
“When people think of wind power, they think of First Wind,” he said. “And when you’re First Wind that’s probably a good and bad thing.”
According to the MREA website, the organization has 22 “producer” members, ranging from giants like TransCanada (of the 44-turbine Kibby Wind development), Iberdrola Renewables (a branch of the multinational corporation that owns Central Maine Power) and First Wind, to small-scale operations like Goose River Hydroelectric in Belfast. The trade group also has 25 “non-producer” members, including contractors like Cianbro, Reed & Reed and others that work directly on new wind power developments.
Payne said he knew of Friends of the Highland Mountains, and described its membership as “anti-wind,” and expressed doubt that the organization was as homespun as it appeared.
Presented with Alan Michka’s view that the group is not against wind energy itself, but the way developments have played out in Maine, Payne tipped his head back, cracking a smile – a “give me a break” smile.
“They’re anti-wind,” he said.
Behind Payne, a poster boasted that more than 300 businesses in Maine have benefited directly from wind development. A map of Maine was speckled with color-coded dots accompanied by a list of the beneficiaries, most in construction-related industries and services.
John Phillips, an assistant project manager for Reed & Reed, looked over the list and seemed personally familiar with many of the names: local hardware stores that have provided materials in a pinch, tire shops – “lots of flat tires on the job,” he said – engineering firms and others.
Before wind farms came to Maine, Phillips said Reed & Reed primarily did bridge and large marine construction, but since the Mars Hill wind development in 2006, has been experiencing a snowball-like expansion of the payroll with workers from each subsequent project brought along to the next.
Phillips said the company had been careful not to balloon its ranks and potentially face layoffs later, but it appeared that the touted jobs would last only as long as there were new wind farms to build.
The Wind and the Sun
Laurie Calhoun, a chimney sweep from Dexter, strode up to the Wind Power for ME table and addressed Payne.
“Are you First Wind?” he said.
Calhoun printed his information on one of the cards and took a Reed & Reed hat. First Wind was at the fair last year, he said. “They gave me a dynamite hat.”
The chimney sweep said he was trying to understand why there was such resistance to industrial wind development. The coverage he had seen in the news always seemed lopsided with more airtime given to opponents and naysayers than developers, he said.
In his work, which has taken him to some out-of-the-way, off-the-grid places, Calhoun said he’d seen small-scale turbines in action, but his own interest was in solar power. He had a camp powered exclusively with electricity generated by photovoltaic panels and he had a mobile panel array that he sometimes took to jobs where he knew there would be no electricity to power his tools.
When asked about the difference between smaller, personal-use turbines and industrial-scale wind farms, his face twisted into an expression of hard thinking.
“That’s the answer I was kind of searching for,” he said. “But industrial wind powers thousands of homes, so there must be a place for that.”
A quick count of vendors at the fair showed wind power fairly eclipsed by its solar counterpart, presented not only in photovoltaic panels, like those favored by Calhoun, but also in solar thermal hot water heaters of various sorts.
“It speaks a little bit to the accessibility of those options,” said Fair Director Jim Ahearne, several days after the fair. “A lot of what we focus on here is things people can do themselves, and I think the small-scale, backyard wind arrays are more limited in their applications.”
Even MOFGA, which installed its own 10-kilowatt wind turbine five years ago, went solar this year in a big way, installing a 54-panel, 11-kilowatt photovoltaic array atop the organization’s 200-year-old red barn.
According to Vernon LeCount, facilities coordinator for MOFGA, a combination of factors, including the cessation of a solar energy rebate policy in France and Spain and a surge in solar manufacturing in China have made the panels only slightly more expensive than the sun that shines on them – roughly $1.47 per watt, as compared with $4.50 per watt a year ago.
Using a net metering system that effectively “banks” energy in the regional grid, LeCount said the solar cells and wind turbine collectively generate more than enough electricity to power the fair and all the rest of MOFGA’s activities during the year.
“If you have any money, now’s the time to buy solar panels,” he said.
Thanks, but no thanks
First Wind tried to donate money to the fair this year, LeCount said, but MOFGA declined rather than risk a public flap over it.
“It was the same thing when I used to work in academia. We wouldn’t take money from Philip Morris,” he said. “… Because of the controversy around industrial wind parks, we’d want to stay away from that.”
LeCount echoed Ahearne’s opinion, voiced during the call-in show earlier in the month, on the value of exchanging ideas. Anyone with an opinion was welcome to have a booth at the fair, or attend and weigh in on a topic, he said, but MOFGA takes a neutral stance.
And maybe more so with regard to wind.
“There’s wind power and there’s industrial wind power,” he said. “They’re two different things, and we don’t want to be involved in that controversy.”