The names suggest far-flung places few in Maine will ever see: Saddleback Ridge, Bingham, Oakfield.
For opponents of wind farms, the names are symbolic of a David-and-Goliath battle to protect ridges and prevent costly and ineffective developments that enrich a few.
For supporters of wind power, who candidly confirm that they have the law on their side, the names are locations where Maine can make its mark in one of the most visible forms of renewable energy.
Chris O’Neil, public affairs director for Friends of Maine Mountains, an anti-wind development group, said, “We’ve got the possibility of three projects that may apply for permits this year, and they’re potentially big ones.”
One would site 100 turbines west of Presque Isle, another would rise west of Moosehead and north of Bingham on Misery Ridge, and another would emerge east of Baxter State Park “in Katahdin’s dooryard,” O’Neil said.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine lists 10 operating wind farms in Maine, with another 11 in the permitting process or awaiting analysis. (See the full map at http://www.nrcm.org/projects-hot-issues/clean-air-clean-energy/clean-renewable-energy-wind-solar-hydro-biomass/wind-power-in-maine/wind-projects-in-maine.)
Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said, “In the last 10 years we’ve seen wind power on shore take off and provide quite a lot of power.” (At the map site, the NRCM shares its positions in favor of or against respective wind projects under development.)
Gordon R. Smith, attorney with Verrill Dana, a Portland law firm, said, “The opponents like Friends of Maine Mountains and others have appealed many of the project permits, but almost all of the projects have gone forward.”
Smith has specialized in environmental law and the defense of wind projects.
And while declining to discuss particular costs of litigation (doing so might encourage more appeals, he said), Smith said, “The cost of fighting challenges to approvals is a very small share of the total project development cost.”
On the public policy front, Smith said the Maine Legislature hasn’t been inclined to shake up the state law allowing wind farm developments.
“There haven’t been any major hurdles that have been put up, every legislative session there’s a fight in the legislature about energy policy, and this session is no different. But I don’t think there have been any game changers,” Smith said.
Smith, who continues representing clients with “projects that are being built that are in the permitting process or in the development process,” said some of the early wind projects in Maine, such as Mars Hill, the Vinalhaven project and the Beaver Ridge development, offered lessons for developers.
“I think that siting of projects is a key part of whether a project is going to be successful or not,” Smith said, noting that success with neighbors, connections with the grid and energy generation all factor in to the relative ease of installing wind turbines. Early attempts met a learning curve.
“They were the most contentious, they had the most difficulty with neighbors, and there were some lessons learned,” Smith said.
Local groups have continued to fight additional wind developments, but with little success.
O’Neil, the public affairs director for Friends of Maine Mountains, said, “People call us NIMBYs, and that’s true to an extent, everybody is a NIMBY once in a while, but we don’t fight against cell towers because cell towers are useful and necessary, but wind turbines are neither.”
O’Neil said the Friends group also isn’t denying climate change: “My organization doesn’t deny that CO2 is a problem, but wind is not a solution to that problem.”
Other misconceptions persist, he said. “We get accused of being funded by the Koch Brothers, they call us climate deniers, which we’re not, we don’t even talk about climate change,” O’Neil said.
Legislation to revisit wind-power goals has been “gaining a lot of traction,” O’Neil said, but he admitted, “Policy makers are still pretty entrenched unfortunately along partisan lines when it should not be a partisan issue.”
Windmills simply are a failed solution, O’Neil argued.
“The nuclear industry was subsidized by the federal government, but I would argue that the nuclear industry changed history. Windmills go back in history. They’re antediluvian,” he said.
“The Wind Lobby is massive, the cartel. It’s a cartel made up of people on the front lines of wind production; but the affiliated and associated trades, environmental groups, and others, makes for a very powerful lobby that spends money,” O’Neil said.
The state has zoned for wind as a permanent use, and O’Neil said the law is stacked in the wind lobby’s favor.
“It’s very difficult to oppose them at the state level, what we have going for us is the public is becoming better educated about the high impact and the low benefit; and the marketplace is going to do what it needs to do to run an efficient grid, and the fact is we don’t need this low-quality electricity. We can’t afford it, either,” O’Neil said.
“We’ve gotten over three dozen communities where they had the ability to write zoning, and they wrote local zoning to restrict wind developers from pursuing projects,” he said.
Taxpayers and ratepayers subsidize wind power, and a change in federal policy could reward the Friends group, O’Neil said.
“If the federal subsidies finally die, our stalling efforts would have been rewarded because a lot of these applications won’t even be submitted,” he said.
Brad Blake of Cape Elizabeth, chair of Citizens’ Task Force on Wind Power, told the Phoenix, “Wind power is unpredictable, unreliable, and cannot be dispatched to match the demand load of the electricity grid. That renders it practically useless and its contribution to the regional grid is as planned surplus, yet forcing it into the grid undermines the efficiency and cost effectiveness of the fleet of conventional generators, increasing carbon and other pollutants and driving up prices. Just this month ISO-New England released a study of how capacity payments have to increase for conventional generators due to wind being forced into the grid, largely as a result of arbitrary renewable mandates.”
Blake continued, “The wind industry knows that people express their support by superficial understandings, so whatever side winds the public relations battle usually wins with policy support as well. They have expended tremendous money and effort to have full time lobbying in Augusta, activities from MPBN sponsorships to booths at fairs where there are giveaways to the public. The first thing the industry does when it goes into an area is give $5,000 or so to the local snowmobile clubs and ATV clubs and other organizations that are easily swayed with a small donation into providing local support. … The tallest building in Maine is Portland’s Franklin Towers at 204 ft tall, so these turbines are more than double that size. Every time a developer wants to build more than 100 ft high in the urban core of the city, there is a huge outcry of ‘it’s too big’ and ‘it is out of scale!’ Well, Portlanders, why should scenic regions of our beautiful state be ruined by these ugly, noisy machines?”
O’Neil wrote, “When wind advocates tout their suddenly ‘low’ per kilowatt hour contract prices, and their ability to suppress the price in the bid-stack, they ignore this massive cost shift and other cost shifts that wind adds to our light bills. This auction also includes payments for import capacity and demand curtailment, i.e., payments to shut down big power consumers, which often means factory workers lose pay. No number of wind turbines will remedy this problem. We need firm capacity.”
“There are about 846 megawatts of wind power installed capacity in the ISO-NE grid, 440 of which are in Maine,” wind-power opponent Steve Thurston wrote. “Turbine spacing allows about 10 megawatts per mile, so New England already has sacrificed over 80 miles of ridges, and Maine has more than 40 miles of turbines in place. According to the ISO-NE website’s real time monitor (http://www.iso-ne.com) the grid is using 15,000 megawatts at the moment. Wind is providing less than 1 percent, which is pretty typical. To achieve the stated goal of 20 percent wind generation will require 20 times more turbines than presently exist or 1,600 miles of New England’s ridges. Can you blame people for trying to stop this madness? Can you blame them for wanting to have their basic rights restored?”
“I think wind power has ultimately been good for the state and the majority of the residents, it’s been an economic benefit,” Smith said. The attorney called wind farms one of the few major infrastructure developments still being built.
“The choice is not between wind energy and no energy, but between wind and forms that carry greater environmental impacts,” Smith said.
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