Wind Power Fans Controversy

High atop some of the tallest mountains in Maine, a wind farm proposal has set the stage for a clash of environmental values that could define the future of wind power in Maine. The Redington Wind Farm’s 30 turbines would generate electricity without greenhouse gases and offer Maine people a stable source of affordable energy for decades while lessening dependence on polluting fossil fuels.

But environmental groups worry it would also push development into pristine subalpine habitat that is home to several rare or threatened species and erect a chain of lighted windmills 41 stories high within about a mile of the Appalachian Trail. Behind the controversy created by this project — the plan will be debated at a Land Use Regulation Commission public hearing in August — however, is the much larger story of wind power in Maine. In terms of generating capacity, the Redington project would produce roughly 90 megawatts of power — enough to power about 40,000 Maine homes. But it is only one of a several projects in various phases of development in Maine: — The Mars Hill project in Aroostook County, the first utility-scale wind-power project approved in Maine, will produce 50 megawatts of power at peak production when completed. — The Linekin Bay project in northern Aroostook County calls for installing wind turbines capable of generating 500 megawatts of electricity in a phased process that could be completed by 2010. — The Kibby Mountain project in western Maine, which is also in the very early stages, would have between 100 and 200 megawatts of capacity, possibly by the end of 2008. — In Freedom, residents voted last month in support of Portland-based Competitive Energy Services’ plan to erect three wind turbines on Beaver Ridge. If those projects live up to their potential, they would theoretically create roughly 800 megawatts of generation capacity or about 40 percent of the energy Maine residents use during peak periods. Wind turbines operate well below capacity most of the time, but those proposals still represent a potentially enormous expansion of generation capacity all the more striking because wind power was not economically viable until recently. Driving the development is a combination of improved technology, federal tax credits, the volatile cost of fossil fuels, and a growing market for green power in the New England power grid. Maine has the 19th-highest wind resource in the United States, well behind western states like North Dakota and Texas, but by far the most wind power potential of any of the New England states, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Bright Future in Wind Kurt Adams, chairman of the Public Utilities Commission, said Maine also has an advantage when it comes to siting generating capacity. A big state with lots of land, Maine has more potential sites for developers to choose from than its neighbors. And he said both Maine’s governor and Legislature are supportive of generators that use renewable resources. Over time, those geographical and political factors should pay off for Maine people, Adams said. Siting new wind power generators will increase the already sizable surplus of energy generated in Maine, and should result in lower prices for Maine consumers, he added. “There is a real economic driver here that is, at the end of the day, going to be very good for Maine if we can find suitable places to put it,” said Adams. That critical question — what is a suitable site — will largely define the scope of wind power in Maine, and it will also be at the center of a Land Use Regulation Commission public hearing Aug. 2 and 3 about the project. The commission, which oversees land use issues in the unorganized territory, is charged with deciding whether to rezone about 1,000 acres on Redington Pond Range and Black Nubble Mountain so that land can be used for the wind farm. And while their decision officially only affects the Redington project, it could well set precedents for other generators and help define the future of wind power in Maine. It is a fact not lost on the environmental community where siting issues surrounding wind power have exposed deep fault lines. Maine Audubon, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Conservation Law Foundation are among those environmental groups that have been granted intervenor status in the proceedings. Balancing Environmental Values Pete Didisheim, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said there are valid environmental reasons to support or oppose the project. “It is almost a perfect storm for a conflict between a desire to move toward clean energy and a desire to protect some of the few remaining wild places,” said Didisheim. Didisheim said his organization came out in favor of the Mars Hill wind power project in Aroostook County south of Presque Isle — the only large scale generation project approved in Maine — before other environmental groups. “We think it is a good thing for Maine to become a leader within the region in developing clean power,” he said. But at the same time, Didisheim said the Redington project would be built in an area prized for its beauty and isolation. “It is a competition of two goods, two things that society needs more of and doesn’t have enough of and that is wilderness and clean power,” he said. Harley Lee, president of Endless Energy Corp., one of the two partners of Maine Mountain Power, which is developing the Redington site, got involved in wind power in the late 1970’s when technological problems made it an economic non-starter. Now, with global warming increasingly being viewed as a reality and wind power technology vastly improved, he said the time is right for wind power and for the Redington project. The Redington Pond Range and Black Nubble Mountains, where the development would be sited, are well suited to wind power with long and level north-south ridges. “Mother nature did not make a lot of mountains like that,” Lee said. He said the project has attracted broad support, according to surveys of local residents and even hikers. Controversy over the site emanates largely from a small number of very vocal critics, he said. “We have a very well designed project with very low impacts and very large benefits,” he said. Lee said his company has worked hard to minimize environmental effects, shrinking the 20 acres of wetland impacts that were part of the initial design down to three tenths of an acre. Roads and power lines have been moved to minimize visual impacts and a buffer created around the habitat of the northern bog lemming, a species that is considered threatened in Maine. The area around the mountains is beautiful, but not roadless, said Lee, who describes it as a working forest in an area between two ski resorts. “What we are doing is getting another renewable resource out of Maine’s forests,” he said. Big Impacts to Special Places J.T. Horn, New England director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, said the Redington Mountain project is the only one his organization is opposing out of several proposed wind power projects near the Appalachian Trail, a federally protected 2,200 mile swath of land stretching from Georgia to Maine’s Katahdin Mountain. Horn said his organization believes that wind power can play an important role in addressing global warming and air quality issues. But he said other factors have to be considered. “Not all sites are appropriate and some sites are really fragile and special and remote and scenic,” said Horn. Redington Mountain is one of those sites, he said. To reach the long ridges where the turbines will be constructed, about 12 miles of new road will have to be built up to a 4,000 foot mountain. When the project is completed, it will be visible from numerous viewpoints along a 50-mile stretch of one of the most remote sections of the trail. “If you backpacked this section, it would take you over a week to hike and every time you came to a view point, you would be able to see this wind farm,” he said. And he said 15 of the turbines will be equipped with aircraft warning lights. “Not only will you see them on the horizon, but they will also be spinning and flashing,” he said. Jody Jones, a wildlife ecologist with the Maine Audubon Society, said the project would impact a fragile area that is a core habitat for Bicknell’s thrush, a bird that lives only in mountainous regions of the Northeast, as well as the northern bog lemming. While Lee has moved the proposed road and turbines to avoid the habitat of the lemming, Jones said there are concerns that rain water and snow melt runoff could be exacerbated by the roads and drive the lemmings out of the bog. There are only a handful of identified locations in the Northeast that are northern bog lemming habitat, said Jones. In all of Maine there are only 14 examples of subalpine fir forest specialized habitat, said Jones. Of those, she said the area in question is one of only five that are rated excellent. “To me it is a grand experiment in the wrong place,” said Jones. Global Perspective Robert Gardiner, director of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Maine office, said the effect of wind power on the global environment should be carefully considered. Gardiner said his organization is technically a neutral intervenor in the application process, although much of its testimony will tend to favor the Redington project. If more wind power is not developed in places like Redington Pond Range, Gardiner said entire mountain tops in Appalachia will be dug up for coal and acid rain and global warming will threaten habitats throughout Maine, including those on the Redington ridge. The problem, he said, is wind power projects need two things to be viable: a good wind source and access to power transmission lines. “There are very few right places and this is one on a very short list of places that could be right,” he said. Story reprinted with permission from Blethen Maine Newspapers, Inc.
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