Gov. Paul R. LePage issued an executive order Wednesday putting the brakes on the state’s permitting of new onshore wind projects. In doing so, he’s renewed the longstanding debate over whether there’s greater value in Maine’s scenic mountains for tourism than for wind energy.
His order also created the Maine Wind Energy Advisory Commission, which is charged with developing and proposing regulatory policies guiding future deployment and operation of wind turbines in Western Maine.
“I am placing a moratorium on issuing any new permits related to wind turbines until this Commission studies the economic impact that such development would have on tourism in Maine,” LePage said in a statement announcing his executive order. “Tourism, especially returning visitors, is a major driver for the Maine economy. We cannot afford to damage our natural assets in ways that would deter visitors from returning to Maine.”
In 2016, Maine attracted more than 35 million visitors who spent nearly $6 billion, numbers that were surpassed in 2017, according to a news release from the governor’s office.
LePage stated: “While out-of-state interests are eager to exploit our western mountains in order to serve their political agendas, we must act judiciously to protect our natural beauty. I urge the commission to take the time they need to develop the right policies that balance tourism, the needs of the communities, the environment and development.”
Membership of the commission will include representatives from state agencies and other entities that have substantial responsibilities and/or interests in the siting of wind turbines in Western Maine, including members of the Legislature, municipal officers, advocacy organizations and businesses.
As part of its charge, the commission will monitor compliance with federal and state environmental law, consider the economic impact of previously sited wind turbines in Maine and develop and propose policies regulating the future deployment and operation of wind turbines in Western Maine.
In addition to today’s executive order, LePage announced his intention to introduce legislation to amend the laws governing expedited permitting for wind energy development.
“Current law is too ambitious and overly permissive in areas of the state where we must protect our scenic vistas,” he said. “While I believe that some expedited permitting for wind is appropriate, my bill will implement constraints on where expedited development can occur to protect our tourism-based economy.”
Environmental group slams LePage’s executive order
Dylan Voorhees, clean energy project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, issued a statement Wednesday condemning LePage’s moratorium and creation of the wind energy advisory commission.
“Today, Gov. LePage told clean energy investors that Maine is ‘Not Open for Business,'” he said in a written statement sent to Mainebiz. “LePage placed an open-ended unilateral moratorium on development of wind power in Maine. LePage created a secret panel with enormous power to prevent wind power from being developed in Maine. He said ‘no’ to any and all wind power permits until a report is submitted to the governor, and set no due date for the report. Furthermore, he has shielded the panel’s proceedings from Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, which is outrageous.”
Voorhees continued: “Like many of the governor’s other attacks on renewable energy, ultimately this ill-conceived executive order will not prevail. But, unfortunately in the near term it may have the desired effect, which is to show potential clean energy investors that Maine is not ‘Open for Business. …This is the same governor who blew Maine’s best shot at a multi-billion dollar offshore wind industry when he pulled out of the Statoil agreement. Now he is determined to ban onshore wind power development, which has huge potential and has already brought more than $400 million in investment and hundreds of jobs to Maine.”
Voorhees characterized Maine’s 2008 Wind Energy Act as a “fair, balanced policy that provides predictability for developers and protects natural resources.”
“Maine’s Wind Energy Act was created through a public process by the Legislature and a Task Force operating in the public, and can be amended by a public process,” he stated. “NRCM strongly supports reasonable efforts to protect our natural resources and recreation economy; evaluating impacts to those resources is part of the existing environmental permitting process.
Tourism vs. wind power?
According to the American Wind Energy Association, Maine has 17 wind power projects online, with a total of 378 wind turbines having an installed capacity of generating 901 megawatts of power. Projects producing another 23 megawatts of wind capacity are under construction, according to AWEA.
AWEA ranks Maine as 21st out of the 50 states for its installed wind energy capacity, adding that wind power represents 13.9% of the state’s in-state energy production and produces enough energy to power 149,000 homes.
More than $1.8 billion has been invested in wind projects in Maine in the last decade, according to AWEA, creating as many as 2,000 jobs for Maine contractors that include Reed & Reed Inc. and Cianbro.
But LePage’s moratorium simply brings to a head the long-brewing revolt against wind power in western Maine communities that see tourism as an economic driver of greater benefit.
A 2015 law created a process for residents to petition the Land Use Planning Commission to remove a municipality, township or plantation from the expedited permitting area. To qualify for consideration, a petition must be signed by at least 10% of the voters in that jurisdiction who cast ballots in the last gubernatorial election.
More than 40 communities, located in unorganized territory from western to Downeast Maine, have opted out of fast-tracked commercial wind development areas that were allowed by Maine’s Wind Energy Act of 2008, according to the LUPC’s website, which was last updated on March 27, 2017.
More recently, county commissioners in Piscataquis and Somerset counties voiced opposition last fall to the proposed Somerset Wind project, a 26-turbine 93.6 megawatt project, proposed by NRG Energy of Houston proposed for portions of Misery Ridge Township, Chase Stream Township and Johnson Mountain Township.
“Our biggest worry is that many of the visitors to Moosehead Lake and Maine’s North Woods come for a ‘wilderness’ experience,” Piscataquis county commissioners stated in an Oct. 3, 2017, letter sent to LUPC, LePage and the region’s legislative delegation. “Will they continue to drive long distances to come here if that wilderness feel is gone, replaced by the whirring blades of Somerset Wind’s turbines and the red flashing warning lights placed on each 500-foot tower for aviation safety? Our economy is too fragile to take that risk.”
In a January 2015 exit interview with Mainebiz, former Maine Public Utilities Commission Chairman Tom Welch, reflecting on his 15-year career as a utility regulator, gave some credence to the tourism-related arguments asserted in LePage’s executive order.
“Maine has a good wind resource,” he stated in a recorded interview. “The question of whether Maine can and should exploit that wind resource depends a little bit on the question of what Maine should be selling to the rest of the world? If you are selling pristine landscapes, you need to think about where you want to put those wind turbines.”
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