A$2.75 million settlement announced last month between Friends of Maine’s Mountains and SunEdison involving New England’s largest wind farm, near Bingham, has exposed a deep rift in the state’s wind-power resistance movement. The dispute offers a glimpse into an internal conflict that’s spilling over into the ongoing public debate about the benefits and harms of erecting giant turbine towers along Maine’s remote ridges.
Critics say the private negotiations with the state’s largest wind-power developer set a precedent that may embolden other companies to offer anti-wind groups money, to avoid legal challenges and project delays. These critics say they plan to buy newspaper ads to lay out their opposition and distance themselves from the Friends group.
“We have to demonstrate to the wind industry that we’re not going to be sold out, because we have been sold out by Friends of Maine’s Mountains,” said Richard McDonald, president of Saving Maine, which is leading the pushback. “The wind developers are laughing all the way to the next ridgeline.”
But Chris O’Neil, a consultant and lobbyist who serves as vice president for public affairs for the Friends group, said the settlement – which features an “exclusion zone” in which SunEdison pledges not to build new projects – salvaged what otherwise would have been a total defeat. In O’Neil’s view, the settlement sends a different message to developers.
“My client also wants it to shame other wind developers away from our most sensitive areas, ultimately shrinking the battlefield sufficiently that wind developers simply cross Maine off their list,” he said.
O’Neil and Kurt Adams, who until last week was a top SunEdison executive, explained in interviews with the Maine Sunday Telegram why they negotiated a settlement and what impact it may have on future development.
PROJECT OPPONENTS RARELY WIN
Nine years after the first large turbines were erected on Mars Hill in Aroostook County, wind power remains controversial in Maine, where 10 percent of electricity generation now comes from wind. To supporters, it’s a renewable-energy success story, injecting $1 billion into rural economies while offsetting fossil fuel dependence. To opponents, it creates an eyesore that, at worst, threatens the health of residents who live too close to the whirling blades.
But nine years on, one thing is clear: On balance, opponents have had little success challenging wind projects at regulatory agencies, in the Legislature or in court. At best, some projects have been delayed and some have been modified to address specific objections.
A few remain in flux. SunEdison’s Weaver Wind proposal in Hancock County was temporarily withdrawn last summer amid concerns for bat and bird mortality. An appeal of the company’s Bowers Wind project in eastern Penobscot County remains undecided at the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. In Fort Fairfield, the Town Council last month approved a 1-mile turbine setback ordinance that’s seen as hostile to a plan by EDP Renewables to build a massive wind farm in Aroostook County.
Still, opponents so far have been unable to kill any major projects. Against this backdrop, Friends of Maine’s Mountains has shifted strategy.
That shift first occurred last year when the group was fighting a wind project in western Maine called Saddleback Ridge. A story published last May in the Telegram detailed how O’Neil and Rand Stowell, the group’s founder and chairman, agreed to abandon the legal battle in exchange for a settlement of at least $200,000, some of which went to pay consulting fees to O’Neil, who at the time served on the board.
The actions led to an investigation of the nonprofit group by the Maine attorney general. The office found that the two men participated in conflict-of-interest transactions and ordered changes in operations.
The incident created bad blood between O’Neil and Stowell and McDonald, who had served on the board but was forced off when he declined to support the Saddleback Ridge settlement.
The Friends group’s willingness to bargain also was noted by Adams, then a vice president for corporate development at First Wind, which was purchased last year by a subsidiary of SunEdison.
First Wind had won a regulatory go-ahead for the Bingham Wind project when the Friends group appealed the decision. Adams reasoned that the appeals process could take up to a year, depriving the company of a year’s worth of revenue from power generation.
HIGH VALUE WIND FARM
Now under construction, Bingham Wind is important to SunEdison. The 185-megawatt wind farm is valued at $420 million. The 56 turbines will be able to generate enough power for 65,000 homes, under a power contract with utilities in Massachusetts. Adams said First Wind decided to approach O’Neil with the idea of dropping the appeal.
“We knew they might be open to a settlement, if we could find common ground,” Adams said.
Adams said he can’t recall who put the first offer on the table, but the parties settled quickly on $2.75 million. The money will be split among groups including the Trust for Public Lands, the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Forest Society of Maine for a variety of projects. A share will go to researching ways to keep bats from being hit by turbines.
The package includes money for decommissioning Bingham Wind and a no-build zone that covers much of the state. However, the exclusion zone doesn’t cover areas of Somerset, Hancock, Aroostook, Penobscot or Washington counties where SunEdison has projects proposed.
“It doesn’t change any development plans SunEdison has,” Adams said.
Adams also said he doubts the settlement would set any precedent in Maine, because it came about under unique circumstances with a project that had a high enough value to offer meaningful financial mitigation.
O’Neil’s recollection and outlook are slightly different. He said the Friends rebuffed an overture by Adams, but the talks got serious after O’Neil calculated it would cost $50,000 to bring the appeal to the Law Court, with little chance of winning.
In O’Neil’s assessment, Maine laws encourage wind-power development and SunEdison’s command of the permitting process creates “a meandering path to a rubber stamp” for projects in Maine. Rather than wage a futile fight to gain nothing, he reasoned, why not use this opportunity to “shrink the footprint” of wind development and protect some special places in Maine?
“My job was to gain value for the state of Maine and Kurt’s job was to gain a construction season,” O’Neil said.
NOT SO MUCH PROTECTION
But others in the wind resistance movement didn’t share O’Neil’s sense of accomplishment. They noted that the Friends group didn’t consult with them, has no citizen membership and is solely composed of O’Neil and five board members, including Stowell.
“Friends of Maine’s Mountains says it represents the anti-wind movement, but they don’t represent us,” said Kevin Gurall of Springfield, president of the Partnership for the Preservation of the Downeast Lakes, which is fighting the Bowers project. “Most of us read about it in the newspaper and the majority of people are upset. This is the second time this group has taken that approach with a developer.”
Opponents also are underwhelmed by the exclusion zone. Lynne Williams, a Bar Harbor lawyer who has unsuccessfully challenged First Wind in court, noted that the zone exempts four areas in Hancock County where SunEdison has proposals. Also not covered is a section of Somerset County west of Moosehead Lake, where the company is testing wind speeds around Misery Gore Township. The zone still allows “one big circle of turbines” for projects in Washington, Penobscot and Hancock counties, she said.
“The area around the Appalachian Trail wasn’t going to be developed, anyway, nor around Baxter State Park,” she said. “So I don’t see this as a big step forward in terms of protection.”
McDonald, who lives in Kennebunk but has a camp on West Grand Lake, was more blunt.
“They’re done with those areas,” he said of the exclusion zone. “It’s a dead zone to them.”
Recently, McDonald and other wind opponents have been cheered by news of financial trouble at SunEdison. The company’s stock value has declined significantly and last week it announced some consolidation and workforce cuts of 15 percent. But a SunEdison spokesman in Boston said these actions won’t affect Maine.
“We are moving forward in Maine as planned,” said John Lamontagne. “We have two wind projects in construction, Bingham and Hancock Wind, another project that is very close to completion in Oakfield, and we have a number of projects in various stages of development. We have every intention of moving forward with these projects.”
With SunEdison indicating business as usual, McDonald was asked why negotiation isn’t preferable to outright defeat. He said it sends a signal that the industry can buy off opponents, if enough money is offered.
“It’s just giving SunEdison a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” he said of the Friends deal. “The best strategy is not to stop resisting. Never give up.”
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