The contentious issue of wind power is up for discussion this week. The first of three forums took place in Freeport this morning looking at the issue of community wind projects. More than 100 wind industry stakeholders packed a hotel conference room to learn about an energy option which is not that big yet in Maine, but which many think has huge potential.
Sue Jones is executive director of Windependence, a group that describes itself as Maine’s community wind resource. “In Maine there’s less than 6 megawatts of community wind operating currently right now, but there’s over 100 megawatts in the pipeline,” she says.
Given that a megawatt is enough to meet the energy needs of about 2,500 homes, this means up to a quarter million households could one day be powered by Maine’s community wind projects. These are projects, supporters say, that municipalities, schools, small businesses or private residences could all get on board with.
Instead of using a large-scale industrial wind energy provider like First Wind, community projects are set up, installed, and paid for, by participating community members.
The state of Massachusetts was held up as a model for the development of community wind projects. The keynote speaker at the event was Steven Clarke, assistant secretary for renewable energy at Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environment.
Clarke says community wind has grown more than tenfold since he joined the office in 2007. “We’ve seen just fantastic growth in our wind energy sector,” he says. “In 2007 we had about 3 megawatts of wind energy installed and only 3 turbines. Flash forward to 2012 and we have about 44 megawatts installed and over 40 turbines across the entire state.”
Sue Jones says the Bay State should serve as an inspiration for developers in Maine. “If Massachusetts can do it with far less wind resources, and less land, and a higher population density, we should be able to do it here in Maine as well, and bring the benefits back to local citizens, municipalities, businesses, farmers and schools.”
Tom Porter: “Now there are some areas that are better for wind that others. Obviously if you’re in a valley it’s not so good. Could any community have a turbine or does it depend where you’re situated?”
Sue Jones: “Well that’s what interesting about what we’re talking here today with ‘net energy’ billing is you don’t actually have to own a particularly good wind site. But rather you can have a shared ownership interest in a turbine located on somebody else’s land, and get the benefits of the clean energy production and any other benefits coming from that project as well. So that’s the difference here. That’s really what we’re trying to bring home.”
“My name is Steve Wilkie. I’m from a company called Sustainable Energy Developments, out of Ontario, New York. We are a developer of community scale wind and solar projects, and so our primary focus is retaining or bringing community benefit to renewable energy projects.”
Wilkie says the practice of what’s called net energy billing has led to a doubling of community wind projects in western New York state in the last three years. And he says the same could happen in Maine.
“For example you could have 9 or 10 homeowners all reap the benefit of a single large machine, instead of 10 individual machines sited at their homes,” he says. “So there are economies of scale–larger turbines produce electricity at lower cost, and this sort of aggregate, or virtual net billing, allows for that possibility.”
While some community wind consumers may not yet be paying less than regular consumers for their power, advocates expect this to change over time as mainstream energy prices get higher.
For Chris O’Neil, this presents a problem. He’s president of the anti-wind power group, Friends of Maine Mountains. “If we get to a point, say 20 years down the road, where people and communities and businesses increasingly to off-the-grid, so to speak, that leaves the rest of us who are on the grid carrying the operating costs for that grid, not unlike the insurance pool, where young, healthy people opt out and older, sicker people are left to pay higher and higher premiums.”
O’Neil concedes that community wind projects are less of a concern to his organization that industrial-scale projects like Mars Hill. Nevertheless, he adds, wherever there are turbines, he says there will be those who are worried by their potential effect on the environment and on public health due to the issue of subsonic noise, the sound that turbines emit.
The second community forum followed later on Wednesday. Windependence will be hosting the third event at the Augusta Civic Center Thursday morning.
Learn more about the community wind effort. “http://energy.gpcog.info/2011/12/community-wind-workshops-for-municipalities-and-farmers-11112/”
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