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First Wind Proposing New England's Largest Wind Farm

First Wind Energy, through subsidiary Blue Sky West, is proposing what would be the biggest wind farm in New England: 62 turbines with up to 186 MW capacity, spanning several towns in two counties in a stretch of Central Maine.

The proposed project would be spread across several locations with turbines in Bingham, Mayfield Township and Kingsbury Plantation, with up to 10 meteorological towers (half of them permanently sited), plus a new substation and a high-voltage (115kV) transmission line to an existing substation 17 miles away in Parkman. Construction would begin in 2014 and be completed in 2015; total cost is estimated at just shy of $400 million.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is hosting a public meeting this evening (Monday July 22) to field public input about the project. A second public meeting will be held sometime later in the summer or early fall, before the DEP issues its final recommendation.

First Wind currently has about 219 MW of installed wind capacity in Maine spanning five projects across the state, plus a 40-MW project in Vermont. It also has a pair of wind projects in New York totaling about 160 MW. The company's portfolio for wind projects in New England is about 434 planned MW out to 2015-2016, deemed "relatively late-stage development." That includes the 150-MW Oakfield project proposed for Maine's northern Aroostook County which has been five years in the works and has all its permits, noted Dave Fowler, First Wind's director of development for the New England region.

This Bingham project site, on more of an elevated plateau than a high ridgeline, was originally identified about five years ago but deemed "a little bit of a gamble" as a viable site for wind energy, noted Matt Kearns, First Wind's VP of development for the Northeast region. Lengthy evaluation of the wind resources there, plus advancements in taller wind turbines and bigger rotors to get up into higher winds that are smoother/less turbulent, have made such sites more easily viable, he said. These lower-elevation sites also help address some opponents' concerns with siting projects on highly visible mountaintop ridgeline locations. Fowler echoed that without such new technology evolvement to support these new sites, the state likely would have already met a saturation point on ridgetops.

First Wind emphasizes local buy-in for its wind farm proposals (the focus of Fowler's community interactions), and Kearns acknowledges the state's "clear regulatory standards and an agency that's willing to enforce those standards and permit projects." Maine's version of a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) currently targets 40 percent of total electricity sales by 2017, with specific call-outs for wind energy: at least 2 GW of installed capacity by 2015, 3 GW by 2020 (including possibly 300 MW from offshore) and 8 GW by 2030 (with 5 GW of that from offshore).

Nevertheless, there's a broader challenge of investing in a state where the administration's policies and rhetoric seem at best unfriendly, and at worst antagonistic, to wind energy development. "Those kind of signals are not helpful to attract capital," Kearns admits. "We have to tell this story about a clear path to investment again and again." That said, "host communities are among our strongest allies," which is key in a state like Maine which has a long and solid tradition of local control, Kearns noted. "When the community stands and says 'we want this project, it will make an enormous difference for us,' that's pretty powerful."

According to AWEA, Maine ranked 25th in the nation with 431 MW of installed wind capacity in 2012, spanning 13 projects. It added just 34 MW of capacity last year after 130 MW in 2011, with about 1.26 GW of capacity in the pipeline. Wind provided just under 6 percent of Maine's electricity in 2012. (Of course Maine's real wind energy profile is still untapped, and could be among the nation's most significant: offshore wind, measured by NREL at a potential of 156 GW, more than 10× its onshore potential. That's why two of the DoE's seven offshore wind project demos are located in the state.)

Lead image: Businessman holding thumb up with wind turbine, via Shutterstock

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