There’s hope on the horizon for those of us determined to stop the industrialization of Maine’s wilderness. Reliable sources informed me last month that plans are in the works for a citizen initiative that could substantially slow, if not stop, the development of new wind-power projects atop the wooded peaks of the Pine Tree State.
My sources spoke on condition of anonymity because the details of the initiative are still being finalized, but those involved expect the campaign will be launched this year, with the goal of putting the referendum question to voters statewide next year or the year after.
The chances such an initiative will succeed are increased by the fact that opposition to large-scale industrial wind projects is one of the few political issues that unites the right wing and the left. It’s the rare place where Republican Gov. Paul LePage and former Green Party gubernatorial candidate Jonathan Carter can find common ground.
The loose consortium working on the proposal includes Tea Partiers and Occupiers, tree-huggers and Bible-thumpers. This diverse constituency wants to protect Maine’s mountains and forests from threats on numerous fronts, including mining, new landfill operations, and the proposed East-West Highway and utility corridor. But the common goal of all these causes is to give people more power to end or amend developments that damage the environment.
My sources say the referendum may call for repeal of the controversial Wind Energy Act of 2008, which passed unanimously in both houses of the Maine Legislature without any floor discussion or debate. The Wind Act designates huge swaths of the state’s pristine wilderness “expedited permitting areas.” Developers who want to erect turbines in those areas don’t need to go through a rezoning process – which normally includes formal opportunities for citizen input – before their projects can move forward.
Last year, Republican state Rep. Larry Dunphy of Embden sponsored a bill to restore the right of five communities potentially impacted by turbines to weigh in on those zoning decisions. In an example of this issue’s bipartisan appeal, Rep. Diane Russell of Portland, one of the most liberal Democratic lawmakers in the state, proposed an amendment to Dunphy’s bill that would have blocked permits for new wind-power development in those communities until the zoning process was changed.
The bill passed in the Maine House, but was sidetracked by Senate Democrats and officially died in a conference committee last month. Big Wind still holds sway over the views of Big Democrats (like gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud, who advocates for the industry’s interests). And though a growing number of rank-and-file party members are becoming disenchanted with the fantasies spun by Big Wind six years ago, it’s now time for the people to step up and restore the environmental protections their representatives in Augusta blew away.
I’ve lived in western Maine for the past five years, and in that time I’ve watched Big Wind try to bully and buy its way to win support and approval for numerous projects – projects only made possible with the help of generous government grants and loan guarantees ultimately paid for and backed by you and me. The industry pushes its plans with promises of “green” electricity, jobs, and the far-fetched idea that wind power will one day help Maine become “energy independent.”
In addition to political contributions, Big Wind gives money to mainstream environmental groups, snowmobile clubs and landowners near its project sites to help spread its propaganda and mute its critics.
This past winter, the non-profit advocacy group Friends of Maine’s Mountains blasted Maine Audubon for issuing a report that downplays Big Wind’s impact on wildlife and habitats while pocketing Big Wind’s cash. The Portland Press Herald reported that First Wind, the Massachusetts-based developer of wind-power projects in Maine and other states, is one of Maine Audubon’s top corporate donors, having given the organization over $10,000 last year.
I had originally intended to profile an activist this month who’s long been a strong opponent of a wind-power development proposed in her neck of the woods. But when I hiked up to her place last month (the road was washed out), she told me she and her husband – facing the prospect of plummeting property values and the scenic and sonic pollution turbines cause – had opted to sell their dream plot of land to the wind developer. Among the conditions of the sale is an agreement that the landowners will stop criticizing the project.
So I’m joining the fight myself. In the weeks before voters decide on the citizen initiative, I plan to lease a bus and give guided tours of the western foothills so urbanites and suburbanites can get a first-hand appreciation of the natural wonders we have and witness the ways those wonders are tarnished by turbines and their associated infrastructure.
Get on the bus
The first part of the tour will bring us through eastern Oxford County, where I live, and near the site of an eight-turbine wind project proposed by Patriot Renewables, a Massachusetts construction conglomerate.
My neighborhood, located about 90 minutes’ drive due north of Portland, is much different than the southern part of the state. Rolling green hills overlook tranquil valleys, and the soil is fertile from centuries of sheep-grazing. The streams and brooks flow clean and strong. Spring water bubbles to the surface and is said to have magical powers.
On moonless nights, the heavens are speckled with gazillions of stars. The lack of light pollution allows us to gaze deep into the center of the universe. When the moon does shine, Luna’s glow bathes the landscape in ethereal silver-yellow light that’s bright enough to read by.
Moose, deer and bear wander free in the darkened forests and pastures. Coyotes howl a nightly serenade and the barred owls answer, while the peepers sing back-up to the tree-frogs’ baritone. Fishers, skunks, weasels and mice all prowl for vittles under the cover of darkness. Porcupines follow the old stone walls in the woods on their nightly commute to the grazing grounds. In the early dawn, foxes pass through our dooryard on their way home from work.
Birds rule the daytime, flitting and flying through the meadows and perching on the dead wood and the living oaks, maples, spruce and white pine. There are more species of birds here than I’ll ever be able to identify. The river valleys of Maine’s western and central counties are popular with migratory flocks. My favorite avians are the six turkey vultures who spend each morning soaring above a nearby swamp, riding the thermals and gusts, sniffing out the odor of carrion below.
Those birds of prey provide an apt segue to the second half of our tour, which will bring us to Record Hill, Partridge Peak and Flathead Mountain, a trio of connected ridges in the northern part of Oxford County, a little less than an hour’s drive from my place. This four-mile ridgeline is a powerful illustration of the many problems caused by industrial wind.
At elevations approaching 2,000 feet, the summits were blasted and leveled in order to build concrete pads for 22 450-foot-tall turbines. The ruined mountaintops, crisscrossed with the wires, poles and roads needed to operate the towers, give this area the atmosphere of an industrial park, despite the glorious views of Roxbury Lake below and to the west. To the east, Mount Blue and Saddleback Ridge stand tall, another wild land waiting to be spoiled – in this case, by a 12-turbine development proposed by Patriot Renewables, a company that also specializes in harbor dredging, gold mining and industrial demolition.
The remote location of the Record Hill turbines required the construction of a $13 million substation and power-line path that cut a wide corridor through the thick forest to bring the juice to the grid. All told, nearly $120 million was spent, with the assistance of federal loan guarantees and grants, to build this behemoth project. And now that the infrastructure’s in place, this entire region is more attractive to energy speculators eager to cash in using other people’s money.
At least Big Wind is generating huge amounts of green energy, right? Plus, aren’t the wind turbines helping to reduce Maine’s dependence on foreign oil? Nope on both counts. Only a tiny portion of Maine’s electricity comes from burning oil. Our power is mostly generated by hydro and gas-fired plants. And much of the power Big Wind generates atop Maine’s spoiled mountaintops is pre-sold to towns and cities in Massachusetts and Connecticut eager to lock into long-term contracts for “green” energy.
Wind developers routinely overstate the amount of power their projects can generate. A quick look at the federal government’s wind charts shows that most of Maine is classified as “marginal,” with a handful of spots identified as “fair” terrain. Our state’s wind potential is nothing compared to that of Texas, the Midwest and the deserts of the Southwest.
When Angus King worked as the pitchman for the Record Hill project in the ’90s, he repeatedly touted the 50.6 megawatts of renewable energy the scheme would supposedly deliver – enough power, he said again and again, to provide electricity for all the homes in Oxford County. The reality turned out much different. According to government numbers, Record Hill generates about a quarter of King’s projections. Like most wind developers, King pushed the turbines’ “plate capacity,” numbers that are only possible if the wind blows all day, every day of the year. In fact, the turbines are only effective when the breeze is between 13 and 25 m.p.h.
Other complications further reduce those lofty figures. Five to 10 percent of the power is lost during the lengthy transmission process, and turbines require electricity for heating, cooling, computer systems and pitch control. If the grid goes down, so do the wind turbines. And because the wind is fickle, another power plant (either hydro or gas) must be ready to kick-in or increase production whenever the breeze stops blowing.
There are more troubles atop Record Hill. Erosion problems linked to blasting, road construction and runoff from snowmelt and rain have been reported. Pesticide use and the potential for spills of oils and lubricants pose a hazard to groundwater and aquifers. The blaze last year that destroyed a $4 million turbine atop Kibby Mountain, in Franklin County, shows the potential for fire atop all our industrial mountains – a real danger to our woodlands.
Beyond the technical issues, the aesthetic effect of wind projects is jarring. The value of property near turbines typically takes a nose dive. And I’ve heard rumors of pill-popping copper thieves casing turbine installations, looking for loot to steal.
These summits were traditional hunting grounds for many generations of Mainers. Now, thanks to 500-foot buffer zones around the turbines, the mountaintops are practically off limits to outdoor enthusiasts of all types. Although security-camera photos occasionally reveal deer or moose roaming among the towers, wildlife don’t like to hang around. Animals may visit the site to feed, but they live elsewhere. Deer, for example, prefer quiet tracts in the wild so they can hear enemies stalking in the woods. When the blades are spinning, the turbines emit a dull roar that’s only slightly softer than the sound of jet engines during taxiing on a runway.
And don’t get me started on the turbines’ deathly danger to our feathered friends. Wind-power advocates like to cite the tired statistic that America’s housecats kill more birds than wind turbines do. To me, those numbers are a black mark against felines, not a check in the “pro” column for putting spinning blades in the sky. Wind turbines are often located in the flight path of migratory species. Activists in Maine have documented bird kills. If Big Wind installs 2,000 turbines across the state, as the Wind Energy Act envisions, the avian death rate will certainly increase. (By the way, the red beacons atop turbines don’t prevent bird kills; those blinking lights are there to warn pilots of small aircraft.)
Lastly, it’s especially bothersome to me that wind developers are not required to have decommissioning plans. Many of these companies struggle to finance the construction of the damn things, nevermind the expense of taking them down. Truth is, turbines have a working lifespan of less than 20 years. How many of these towers will become abandoned eyesores, rusting relics of a greedy age and the unkept promises of out-of-state corporate profiteers? Only time will tell.
So, what can we do about this today? First of all, turn off the freakin’ lights! Every time I’m in a Maine city or suburb after dark, I’m dumbfounded by all the bright lights left on long after the workday and shopping hours are over. Car dealerships and strip malls are among the worst offenders, and their owners undoubtedly pass the cost of this wastefulness on to the consumer. They should at least install small-scale solar if they insist on squandering juice.
Conservation is key, but it won’t be enough. We still need a steady and affordable supply of power. Luckily, there’s Canada.
Our northern neighbors have dammed some of the mightiest rivers in Quebec to produce hydro power, and there are plans for new dams deeper into the interior that will flood the market with even more electricity. Canadian hydro is fairly cheap, it’s reliable, and we’re already buying it. Though it’s distasteful to say this, perhaps we should open up the median strip of the Turnpike and other Maine highways as an energy corridor, then charge the Canadians a toll on the juice that’s sure to eventually head to points south.
It’s time to abandon the fallacy that Maine can be “energy independent.” Last summer I attended a public hearing in a neighboring town for a proposed turbine development. A senior manager with Big Construction testified in favor of the proposal, using the standard industry talking points. Then he added a couple lines insinuating that wind installations atop Maine mountains could prevent sailors and soldiers from having to fight in the Middle East. That’s simply not true.
When the smug fella returned to his spot along the back wall, I approached. In a hushed voice, I harangued him for waving the flag to promote his business agenda. I don’t remember all my angry words, though I do recall damning him and his colleagues to burn in hellfires forever.
Two months later, a state trooper surprised me in my dooryard, brandishing papers for me to sign. He made me promise to leave the industrialist alone and prohibited me from attending any meetings at which he might be present for one year. That ban expires in August.
I’m gonna need to find a bus. Who wants to drive? Anyone wanna chip in a couple bucks for gas?
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