AUGUSTA – Wind energy companies, construction firms and timberland owners urged lawmakers on Friday to reject a LePage administration proposal that would gut the state’s controversial “expedited permitting” process for wind power projects.
A longtime skeptic of the cost-competitiveness of wind power, Gov. Paul LePage imposed a moratorium on new turbine permits in January and wants to change the streamlined review process applied to most of the commercial wind energy projects in Maine. On Friday, LePage administration officials and others argued the decade-old process hinders public engagement and could harm the tourism economy of western Maine as wind energy companies seek to place taller and taller turbines on mountaintops.
“It’s time, folks, that we made this a little bit more difficult for this to happen,” said Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, whose district includes areas in the Moosehead Lake region that have been targeted for wind power development.
But LePage’s bill, which faces strong opposition from both environmentalists and industry, got a chilly reception from lawmakers on the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. Opponents of the administration’s bill also substantially outnumbered supporters, warning that the measure seeks to roll back Maine’s green energy industry while infringing on the private property rights of landowners.
Worse still, opponents said, the bill would hamstring projects already in development while discouraging future investment and job creation in rural Maine.
“It would introduce a fair amount of uncertainty to the project and we don’t have a lot of confidence that we could complete the project with the adoption of the legislation,” said Paul Williamson with Apex Clean Energy, which is working on a $200 million project in Washington County called Downeast Wind. “Without being able to go through permitting, our investment of $200 million into the local economy will not happen.”
Passed by the Legislature in 2008, the “expedited permitting” law streamlined the permitting process for wind power projects in all of Maine’s organized towns and about one-third of the Unorganized Territory. Projects proposed for expedited permitting areas would no longer have to go through an often costly rezoning process. While projects were still subject to lengthy regulatory reviews through the Maine Department of Environmental Protection or the Land Use Planning Commission, the expedited process placed less weight to the turbines’ impacts on scenic views and featured fewer avenues for appeal.
Supporters argue the law provides the regulatory predictability that has led to more than 900 megawatts of installed wind energy in Maine, more than all other New England states combined. But the law’s critics contend the expedited permitting process robs property owners affected by the projects – and especially those in the Unorganized Territory – of a stronger voice in the regulatory review.
LePage’s bill, L.D. 1810, would eliminate the streamlined review process for all of Maine except in about a dozen towns, plantations and townships in Aroostook County. The proposal would also increase fivefold – from 8 miles to 40 miles – the area around turbines subject to visual impact studies within the remaining expedited wind permitting areas. That could make it harder for projects even within those areas to obtain permits.
While there are no wind projects currently in the permitting process, companies are developing projects throughout the state involving hundreds of turbines. And as turbine heights grow with technology improvements – with some now approaching 600 feet from base to blade tip – so do the concerns among some neighboring landowners.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, said a North Carolina study suggested half of coastal-area tourists surveyed indicated they’d be less likely to return if wind turbines were visible on the horizon. Even assuming that figure might be 10 percent in Maine, that would still equate to “hundreds of millions of dollars – and thousands of jobs to the local economy – for a few temporary jobs when it comes to this industry.”
“The people that come to these regions come to these regions for the natural, pristine environment,” Stetkis said. “They’re not coming to look at 600-foot machines. They are interested in sitting around a campfire at night listening to the loons, not watching dozens or hundreds of blinking lights over the horizon.”
But Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, dismissed the governor’s bill as “a clear attempt to derail all of the economic and environmental progress that has been made over the last decade from wind farm development.” Payne said he was “puzzled by the administration’s newfound concern” for tourism in western Maine considering that the governor supports a proposed 145-mile power line from Quebec that would require construction of high-voltage lines through parts of western Maine.
Payne also blasted the 40-mile scenic impact proposal, much less the suggestion from Stetkis that the distance be further lengthened to 75 miles.
“Imagine if the city of Bangor passed an ordinance that attempted to regulate development 40 miles away in Skowhegan, Dover-Foxcroft, Ellsworth and Belfast. It’s important to remember that even at 8 miles, that’s quite a distance away from a proposed project. But extending it to 40 miles is absurd, and going beyond that is even more absurd.”
The Maine Renewable Energy Association as well as the Conservation Law Foundation have filed separate lawsuits against the LePage administration challenging the moratorium on new wind power permits.
Representatives from construction companies that help build wind turbines or their road networks, the Maine Forest Products Industry and environmental groups also testified against L.D. 1810.
Duane Jordan of Osborn, who owns roughly 15,000 acres in Hancock County, said he and neighboring landowners invited wind power developers to their properties a decade ago to test wind level as a way to diversify their businesses. Disputing suggestions that the expedited process leads to speedy regulatory approvals, Jordan said it was four years before the first phase of the project was built and, 10 years later, there are still only 36 turbines spinning in his area despite the desire for more.
Jordan said those turbines are visible from atop Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park on a clear day, yet he doesn’t believe they discourage any visitors from returning to the park.
“The wind farm has been there since 2012 and I think you will find that Acadia National Park is doing very well and tourism is growing,” Jordan said.
The committee is expected to hold a work session on L.D. 1810 next week.