Mike Gosselin, a disabled Navy veteran from the Viet Nam War living one and two thirds mile from the Mars Hill Wind Project, has built himself an insulated bunker in his garage to escape the sound of the wind turbines. He said the sound is like an airplane trying to take off and never making it, similar to aircraft doing touch-and-go exercises on an aircraft carrier or the airfield. It keeps him awake at night and gives him headaches (October 10, 2013, personal interview). Noise from wind farms is just one of the issues plaguing citizens in wind project areas.
This article provides background on Maine’s contentious Wind Energy Act (WEA), recaps past attempts to appeal portions of the WEA, reports the current status of wind energy development in Maine, and outlines the on-going contentious issues around wind power.
Background of the Wind Energy Act
In 2007, America was entangled in war with Iraq, and there was a tremendous groundswell of climate change warnings. Facing high oil and gasoline prices at home, Governor John Baldacci was concerned for Maine’s energy future. In the preceding few years, three grid-scale wind energy projects were proposed under Maine’s site location permitting process. Two projects (Mars Hill and Kibby) were approved; the third was fraught with problems, and so it was denied. In all three cases, Maine’s traditional permitting process worked, but potential wind developers were unhappy about the case that was denied.
Wind developers and well-intentioned conservation groups (e.g., Maine Audubon) saw an opportunity. Together they urged Baldacci to assemble a task force that would make permitting easier for wind energy applicants, made urgent by the world’s climate change and political and economic oil crises.
The task force was dominated by people with strong ties to the wind industry. (See more on this at: Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, August 2010 http://www.pinetreewatchdog.org/wind-power- bandwagon-hits-bumps-in-the-road-3/). The stacked task force’s “solution” to the oil crisis/wind opposition “problem” was to provide “emergency” legislation establishing a special zoning and expedited permitting process for wind energy projects: Maine’s Wind Energy Act.
Energy experts were skeptical about the Wind Energy Task Force’s recommendations, pointing out that Maine had already “gotten off oil” for electricity generation purposes, and that, despite popular opinion, wind energy was low benefit for rate payers and high impact on the environment. Nevertheless, the WEA passed without debate by unanimous votes in the House and Senate. With the stroke of Baldacci’s pen in 2008, the red carpet was rolled out for a level of rural industrial development that was unprecedented in Maine history.
Flaws in the Premise Behind the WEA
By legislating expedited permitting of wind projects over much of Maine, the WEA purported to increase energy independence and security and reduce CO2 production. But, something was wrong with that premise. First, electricity was never Maine’s source of energy insecurity. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), per capita residential electricity use in Maine is below the national average.
Only one in twenty Maine households uses electricity to heat or cool their homes. Experts suggest that converting Maine homes to electric heat would be expensive and impractical, and it would take a tremendous upgrade in the electric grid. Additionally, while heat pumps are a wonderful and efficient technology, they have serious heating limitations when temperatures dip below freezing.
Secondly, with the majority of the state’s population living in rural areas, transportation accounts for more than 50% of Maine’s CO2. Out of necessity, Maine people spend a lot of time in vehicles and transport essential goods over long country roads. According to the EIA, “Home heating and transportation consumption make Maine among the most petroleum-dependent states in the nation, with the highest per capita consumption in New England.” (http://www.eia.gov/state/analysis.cfm?sid=ME)
Finally, according to the EIA, the majority of Maine’s net electricity generation already comes from renewable sources, primarily hydroelectric dams and wood biomass. In fact, Maine tops all other Eastern states in renewable energy production without wind power in the mix, and Maine long ago met its Renewable Portfolio Standard.
Attempts to Change the Wind Law to Benefit Citizens
Maine’s egregious Wind Energy Act (WEA) is so slanted in favor of wind developers that the Maine Office of Energy and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection have recommended that the law be modified. In over 20 attempts, state agencies and frustrated citizens have submitted bills to modify the law to better protect citizen rights. Only one citizen initiated bill, one that would have ensured the rights of citizens in the Unorganized Territories to voice opinions about a wind project, made it to the legislature; it did not pass.
Maine’s Department of Environmental Projection (DEP) has been successful in making a few, small changes in the wind project permitting process. In a presentation before the new Energy, Utilities, and Technology Committee (EUT) of the 127th Maine Legislature (March 3, 2015: https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=7VE1TV3I3I0), DEP Commissioner Aho reported that over time DEP has altered the wind project permitting process to require:
• a 2-step process for public comments on wind projects – at beginning and after draft analyses.
• more information in wind project plans on decommissioning, visual impacts on scenic character, and fire safety;
• that financial data be kept up to date during the permitting process to ensure financial capacity. Constant changes in the corporate world as wind developers spin off new corporate entities (LLCs) with different names, merge, or experience financial setbacks or buyouts may alter a developer’s fiscal stability;
• noise monitoring during wind project operation (but DEP does not check on the developer’s reporting);
• curtailment of turbine operation during critical times for bats and birds (but again, who is verifying the curtailment?).
Attempts to Strengthen the WEA for Developers
According to DEP Commissioner Aho, the wind permitting process is very long and complicated, requiring significant time and expense on the part of the DEP, wind developers, and citizen groups that oppose wind projects. Wind permitting is made even more arduous by the fact that every single permitting decision made by the DEP, whether for or against a wind project, has been appealed to Maine’s Board of Environmental Protection (BEP). And, most BEP decisions have been appealed subsequently to a law court.
It is clear that wind projects are contentious and costly for everyone involved, not just the wind industry. Yet, legislators in collaboration with the wind industry, continue to create bills to strengthen the WEA to make permitting easier for wind developers at the expense of Maine’s citizens. In 2013, Senator Alfond, leading democrat in the Senate, sponsored a bill to overturn a new wind permitting requirement for visual impact analysis from the DEP. The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting found that wind industry lawyers and lobbyists crafted key components of the bill (pinetreewatchdog.org).
Another bill, LD 791, is being sponsored in the 127th Legislature by Sarah Gideon (D) of Freeport. If passed, it will change zoning to allow Maine’s Land Use Planning Commission to add or remove land from wind permitting areas with written request or permission from land owners. Most of Maine’s large landowners (e.g., Irving, Plum Creek, Wagner) are in the forest products industry. With the closing of Maine’s paper mills, owners of forest land are looking for new revenue. This legislation appears to be a benefit for land owners either hoping to build wind projects or hoping to lease their land to wind developers.
Zoning laws were created precisely to protect a developer’s neighbors, the environment, and the character of a region from potential adverse effects. Zoning wasn’t created to enhance the profits of a developer. Once again, wind project zoning protections would be sacrificed for corporate entities, not citizens. Legislators should be providing incentives for the forest products industry to make wood pellets, not put up wind projects. Pellets will do more to ensure our energy security and warmth in winter than wind power.
The Current Status of Wind Development in Maine
Despite the complexity and contentiousness of the wind permitting process, wind developers have succeeded in permitting 26 wind projects. (See Figure 2: Wind Projects in Maine.) Twelve wind projects have been completed, fourteen are at some stage in development, and a 27th, expected to be in the Moosehead area, is just at the wind test-tower stage.
Maine’s wind projects range in size from 119 turbines for the newly-permitted Number Nine Mountain Wind Project in Aroostook County to smaller, community projects of three turbines on Beaver Ridge in Freedom and Fox Islands Wind Project on Vinalhaven. The first turbines erected in Maine were 200 feet high but are now proposed at 400, 600 and even 700 feet. (See Figure 3: Height of Modern Wind Turbine Compared to Transmission Tower, Pine Tree, and Person.) Taller turbines are necessary to capture wind on the small, inland Maine mountains where wind speeds are marginal.
One project considered in development, the Bowers Mountain Wind Project, is still at the Supreme Court. It was denied by the Land Use Regulation Committee (now the Land Use Planning Committee) in 2012 and denied again by DEP in 2013. The BEP upheld the DEP’s denial in 2014 when First Wind appealed. Still, First Wind has appealed the BEP decision to the Court. A hearing on the appeal is scheduled for April 8, 2015.
DEP Commissioner Aho reported that as of March 2015, DEP expects three more applications for wind projects in the next 12 months. In addition, Somerset Wind LLC, a subsidiary of First Wind, is now seeking permission to erect wind testing towers within the area of the Moosehead Forest Conservation Easement owned by Plum Creek Maine Timberlands LLC. When the Plum Creek Moosehead development was granted, Plum Creek retained the right to undertake “studies of wind speed” in the conservation area. The march of wind projects into Maine’s scenic North Woods is continuing.
On-Going Issues with Wind Projects in Maine
Many issues continue to plague wind project development in Maine, both for the public and for DEP. This is a brief summary of the major ones. Some issues are the result of a wind law that was rushed through the legislature before a thorough consideration of many factors. Issues with an asterisk are ones Commissioner Aho mentioned in her recent presentation to the EUT (March 3, 2015).
1. Wind Project Illumination*. Wind turbines are required by the FAA to have red lights to warn air craft and avoid collision. The FAA continues to promise that a new system will be approved that will allow lighting to come on only when aircraft are in the vicinity. It has been years and still no rule making on the new illumination system.
2. Bats*. The DEP continues to be concerned about the impact of turbines on bats, given the devastation of the Maine bat colonies by white nose syndrome.
3. Birds. There is no verifiable analysis of the impact of wind turbines on birds in Maine. It is assumed that night-time predators clean up the carcasses, and there is no requirement that wind developers monitor bird (or bat) kill.
4. Noise*. Noise and turbine vibrations continue to plague people who live in close proximity to wind projects.
5. Property values. People who have property or homes in the vicinity of wind projects are often unable to sell (e.g., Mars Hill – see photo on page 12), and this severely affects property values.
6. No opting out of expedited areas*. The WEA has a provision for adding areas to the expedited wind permitting territory, but not for removing areas. This leaves residents and property owners in the unorganized territories in a serious dilemma, since they cannot vote on wind projects, unlike citizens in municipalities.
7. Calculation, dissemination, determination of tangible benefits*. Wind projects built in municipalities are required to receive tangible benefits under the WEA. These benefits continue to be contentious and vary greatly from municipality to municipality.
8. Visual impacts*. The visual impact of industrial scale wind projects with 650 foot-tall turbines on scenic areas was limited to 8 miles in the WEA , but even the DEP has recommended increasing that distance. In addition, visual impact analysis involves a subjective element, and visual analyses have been challenged by wind developers and opponents of wind projects alike.
9. Determining scenic resources*. In the permitting criteria, the WEA recognizes the need to protect “scenic resources of state or national significance,” but the studies identifying those resources are 25 years old.
10. Requests to expand project size after the permitting is complete*. Some of the permitted wind projects have subsequently applied for additional phases of development, including increasing turbine size or adding more turbines. DEP is concerned that it does not know the full extent of the project up front when making a decision. For example, changing the foot print of a project with more turbines may subsequently impact more wildlife habitat or scenic resources.
11. Small scale projects expanding*. Under the WEA, wind projects with three turbines or less do not have to be permitted by the DEP. One area of concern is whether or not DEP needs to have more oversight of small scale projects that want to add more turbines, subsequently increasing the footprint into DEP’s jurisdiction.
12. Separation of power supply from power transmission. Maine law requires separation of power supply from transmission, creating a competitive market condition for supply that presumably better benefits the Maine electricity users. However, both Emera Maine and Central Maine Power are owned by larger corporate entities that also own wind power projects in the state. Hence, this creates a potential monopoly of power transmission and power supply, illegal under Maine law.
13. Energy consumption in wind facilities. Large wind turbines require large amounts of electricity to operate: yaw mechanisms to keep blades perpendicular to the wind, controlling blade-pitch to keep the rotors spinning at a regular rate, heating the blades to prevent icing, braking the blades in high wind, etc. However, the amount of electricity Maine wind projects use, versus what they produce, is never calculated.
14. Low energy production by wind facilities. Wind speeds on land in Maine are marginal. None of the completed wind projects has ever produced its rated capacity of wind power. Most produce just 25% of their rated capacity. In addition, wind power production does not always meet the demand for electricity. For example, wind is often negligible on warm, sultry, summer days, just when air conditioners are cranking.
15. Renewable Energy Credits. Maine has already met its requirement for renewable energy. Therefore, most of Maine’s wind projects seek contracts with other New England states to sell them Renewable Energy Credits, a legal scheme whereby states can meet federal standards for renewable energy while still continuing to burn coal and oil in their power plants. And, this is just one aspect of wind power’s dubious role in reducing CO2. (See more examples in the Conclusion of this article.)
16. Production Tax Credit. In a strange twist of the law that was meant to encourage renewable energy development, wind power developers receive Production Tax Credits to build wind projects, not to produce electricity. The only profit is in building, not producing, regardless of the name for this credit.
17. Investment Tax Credit. Owners of wind and solar projects are allowed to take an Investment Tax Credit, instead of the Production Tax Credit. It is a 10-year tax credit given in advance for projects the year developers apply for it. If this tax credit were eliminated tomorrow, Mainers would still get stuck for the credits ten years into the future.
A Citizen’s Initiative may be the last chance Maine has to stop the annihilation of our environment and scenic resources for the illusory promise of wind power. In this issue of The Maine Woods, you can read about a current citizen initiative to amend the 2008 WEA. This is not a wholesale repeal of the Wind Energy Act. It will simply level the playing field and restore citizens’ rights.
Ozzie Zehner, author of Green Illusions (2012, University of Nebraska Press), outlined many myths of renewable energy, including wind power. Zehner suggested that the biggest myth of wind power, seized on by naive environmentalists, is that wind power will save the world from CO2. Nothing could be further from the truth.
First, wind projects are located in remote regions, far from population centers. Therefore, they require huge deforestation of the environment when loping off tops of mountains for staging areas and when creating access roads and new transmission lines in wilderness-like areas. Trees reduce carbon in the atmosphere by sequestering carbon in new growth, and this sequestration is not calculated in the clear-cutting for wind projects.
Second, turbines may not emit CO2, but the total carbon footprint created by the mining, building, transporting, installing, land clearing, maintaining, and decommissioning activities that support them do create CO2. Fossil fuels provide the power behind all these activities. In addition, the large turbines, like those used in Maine’s wind projects, rest upon massive, carbon-intensive concrete bases which are needed to prevent the hulking towers from toppling in the wind. Many scientists currently think at least 5 percent of humanity’s carbon footprint comes from the concrete industry, both from energy use and the carbon dioxide byproduct from the production of cement, one of concrete’s principal components (2009, science daily.com.)
Finally, wind power is stubbornly intermittent and unpredictable. And, it may require more electricity to maintain a wind turbine than it produces. Therefore, backup power from traditional, predictable power plants will always be needed to pick up the slack and avoid power outages or turbine malfunction. Experts estimate that wind power will never be able to provide more than 5% of the US energy needs, at best.
Considering that states can purchase wind power for Renewable Energy Credits while continuing to burn fossil fuels, and considering all the fossil fuel use required to build a wind project, wind power is really a hybrid fossil fuel. So much for wind power saving the world from CO2. Maine’s WEA appears to be a scheme to make some people rich on tax credits at the expense of Maine’s tax payers, environment, wildlife, and tourist-attracting scenery.
Anyone interested in joining the Citizen’s Initiative effort should contact Dan Remian at (207) 354-0714 or n7CD@gwi.net. For more information about wind power and wind power resistance efforts in Maine, go to SavingMaine.org and Citizen’s Task Force on Wind Power in Maine.
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