BINGHAM – While several Maine environmental groups have embraced a proposed 62-turbine wind farm here, some still continue to oppose the project and could continue efforts to stop it, despite newly won approval for the wind farm from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
The Bingham Wind Project, which is proposed by Boston-based First Wind, was granted a land use permit by the department on Monday, one of the final steps needed before construction can start.
Meanwhile, three environmental advocacy groups – the Sierra Club, Conservation Law Foundation and Environment Maine – announced their support for the project Tuesday in a joint news release. If built, the Bingham project would be the largest wind farm in the state. Work could start sometime this winter, project officials say.
“Sierra Club is committed both to protecting Maine’s wilderness and transitioning away from dangerous fossil fuel dependency to a cleaner energy economy based on efficiency and renewable power like wind and solar,” Sierra Club Maine Chapter Director Glen Brand said in the release. “We understand that if we are to reach our vision of a 100 percent clean energy future in time to mitigate the worst effects of climate change for future generations, we must strike a sometimes difficult balance between clean energy production and environmental protection, and we believe that the Bingham project strikes this balance.”
Other activist groups, such as Friends of Maine’s Mountains and the Citizens Task Force on Wind Energy, continue to oppose the project. The groups can move to delay and eventually block the project by filing an appeal either with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court or the department’s Board of Environmental Protection.
Friends of Maine Mountains will appeal the decision to award the project a permit if the group can raise enough money, said Chris O’Neil, president of the Weld-based group, which opposes wind energy. The group’s top points of opposition are the financial risk of investing in wind energy and lack of a plan for dismemberment of wind farms should they become obsolete or the equipment becomes outdated.
“We absolutely want to prevent this senseless wind project,” O’Neil said. “Destroying almost 20 miles of ridge-line at a cost of $400 million, only to gain a fraction of 1 percent unnecessary electricity, is a ridiculous trade-off and a brutal travesty.”
The wind farm’s construction is subject to a number of conditions set down by the DEP in its decision, including that the company must provide evidence of financial ability to construct, operate and maintain the wind farm, which is estimated to cost about $398 million.
According to the 55-page decision, which details the process of review and conditions of the permit, the department has been told about concerns about First Wind’s capacity to finance the project in light of a recent Maine Supreme Judicial Court decision that tossed out a financial partnership between First Wind and Emera, a Nova Scotia-based energy company. The court eventually vacated the ruling after the Maine Public Utilities Commission adopted additional conditions on the partnership intended to prevent the companies from monopolizing wind power and granted its approval.
“First Wind has an excellent track record of securing financing for our projects, having raised more than $800 million for our six Maine projects alone,” John Lamontagne, a spokesman for First Wind, said in an email Tuesday. “We expect that we will secure financing in the near future.”
If all goes well, he said, the company hopes to start construction on the project this winter. The company still is awaiting a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, which also is needed before construction can start.
In 2011, the group unsuccessfully appealed the construction of the Saddleback Ridge Wind Project, a 12-turbine wind farm in Carthage that is now under construction by the Patriot Renewables group.
“One of the many disadvantages citizens have under Maine wind law is that wind development companies can out-lawyer and out-expert us because of their deep pockets,” O’Neil said. “It’s no small undertaking to appeal one of these permits.”
In February, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Maine Appalachian Trail Club and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy dropped opposition to the Bingham project after Blue Sky West, a subsidiary of First Wind, donated $700,000 to the creation of a conservation easement along the Appalachian Trail.
A portion of the trail falls within eight miles of the project, the threshold the department uses to evaluate scenic impact, but because there were no “designated scenic viewpoints along this portion of the trail … the applicants concluded that the project should not have an unreasonable adverse effect on the scenic character of the Appalachian Trail,” according to the decision.
In addition, the DEP said in its decision that the department received a number of comments throughout the review process from members of the public concerned with the scenic impact in areas not designated as having state or national significance.
“The majority of the comments received regarding the scenic character of the project had to do with the impact of the project on Kingsbury Pond and other ponds in the area that do not meet the definition of state or national significance,” reads the decision. “In addition, the department heard concerns about the potential scenic impact to interested parties’ houses and private properties. However, these also do not meet the definition of scenic and national significance and are not regulated under the Maine Wind Energy Act.”
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