TOWNSHIP 16, Maine—This state’s tree-filled hinterlands, long known for producing forest products and potatoes, are also suited for an export that has churned up debate: wind power.
The recent appetite for wind power comes largely from Massachusetts and Connecticut, where laws require rising use of renewable power. The two states combined have 70% of New England’s population but little available open space on land to build wind farms. Developers have turned to Maine, where they say land is expansive and strong winds are more abundant.
Maine already leads the region with more than 400 megawatts of wind power installed, according to the American Wind Energy Association, which said 1 megawatt of wind power can cover about 290 homes. Recently signed long-term contracts with utilities in Massachusetts and Connecticut could more than double that output in the next few years if the projects all come to fruition.
Plenty of locals welcome the development, helped by financial rewards tied to the projects, and the wind industry counted strong Maine support in a recent poll. Governors in Massachusetts and Connecticut said the recent deals will add clean energy to the grid at cost-effective rates.
But the situation has prompted some soul-searching as a number of residents worry more wind turbines will turn the woodsy state into New England’s utility closet. Vocal opponents also question wind power’s environmental merits and say turbines aren’t worth spoiled views or noise.
Larry Dunphy, a Republican state representative for a swath of rural Maine, recently posited a future when “you won’t be able to climb a mountain without seeing blinking red lights and spinning turbines.”
Lawsuits and permit appeals seeking to block projects are common, though it has proven difficult to get around a 2008 state law that spurred wind development, said Lynne Williams, an attorney in Bar Harbor who represents wind-farm opponents.
The law, passed under former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, set aggressive goals for adding wind power while simplifying the regulatory process in much of the state. Republican Gov. Paul LePage has been a wind-power critic, but Ms. Williams said wholesale changes have been a tough sell under both Democratic and GOP control.
“The governor feels as though the local populations that are most affected by these projects have been marginalized,” said Patrick Woodcock, who directs Mr. LePage’s energy office.
Jeremy Payne, executive director at the Maine Renewable Energy Association, disagreed that people in those areas lost a voice through the 2008 law. He said wind power brings some economic development to regions that could use a boost. “This is something we should be embracing,” he said.
For now, developers say Maine remains an easier place to build in than other regional locales. Massachusetts has about 100 megawatts of its own wind power installed, according to the state, but a 12-year effort to build a wind farm off Cape Cod illustrates the challenge of building in crowded areas with well-financed opponents. In Connecticut, opposition to some small proposals led to a 2011 moratorium on wind projects.
Power-grid operator ISO New England Inc. said developers have requested to connect 1,275 megawatts of added wind power in Maine. Some projects may drop off the radar, and expiring federal subsidies could slow development. But mounting demand should still keep Maine busy this decade, said Paul Gaynor, chief executive at Boston-based developer First Wind.
First Wind’s 19-tower Bull Hill project, which started generating power for a Massachusetts utility last year, sits on a remoteplateau in the unorganized Township 16. The turbines recently spun steadily on a frigid day, tapping breezes hundreds of feet up despite calm weather on the ground. The 160-foot blades generated a rhythmic whooshing as they passed the tower.
In Oakfield, a remote northern town, retired electrical engineer Dennis Small is worried about noise from a $350 million, 48-tower First Wind project in early-stage construction. He pointed to Mars Hill, another northern Maine town where noise and other complaints fueled confidential settlements between First Wind and homeowners roughly two years ago, the homeowners’ attorney said.
Mr. Small said he shared in financial benefits for full-time residents, but thought it was a mistake to take a deal. “There are going to be some unhappy people here once [the windmills] start turning.”
Oakfield homeowners near the planned turbines have already struck undisclosed deals with the company, and town manager Dale Morris said community support has been strong overall, helped by modest incentives for full-time residents and millions for the town.
First Wind said it models sound more conservatively since Mars Hill, its first Maine project, and aims for more distance from homes. “We’ve learned from all our experiences,” said Dave Fowler, First Wind’s Northeast development director.
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