Some now have second thoughts about fast-tracking wind

AUGUSTA — The Wind Energy Act of 2008, which gave developers fast-track approval for putting up wind turbines in some of the state's treasured high ground, was justified at the time in the name of jobs, energy independence and climate change.

“There is tremendous potential for Maine to become a leader in clean, renewable energy, including wind energy,” said Gov. John Baldacci, who appointed the task force whose report led to the bill. “This kind of investment would create jobs and help to expand Maine’s economy.”

But now, two years after the law was championed by Baldacci, some members of the task force are questioning whether the goals they set for wind power can, or even should be, achieved.

Critics and even some one-time supporters say the proponents of the law were swept up in a tidal wave of enthusiasm for a technology that turns out to require significant sacrifice from the state, but has little to offer Maine in return.

That issue was faced head-on recently when the state Land Use Regulation Commission was asked to rule on an extension of a TransCanada wind project in western Maine.

LURC Commissioner Ed Laverty summed up the problem with the bill: “Our job is to protect the resources in these high mountain areas ... given the fragile nature, and the rich nature of the resources in these areas, we have to ask ourselves, to what extent can these benefits really outweigh the long-term costs?

Chris O’Neil, a former state legislator who now works as a public affairs consultant to groups opposing wind power development in Maine’s mountains, said that the governor’s vision was fundamentally flawed.

“To fulfill the charge of making Maine a leader in wind power development and to simultaneously protect Maine’s quality of place is impossible,” O’Neil said.

The bill constituted one of the most significant changes in the state’s land use laws in a generation:

— It weakened longstanding rules that would have required wind turbines “to fit harmoniously into the landscape.” LURC Director Catherine Carroll said, “That’s a huge change.”

— The bill cut off a layer of appeal for those protesting state permits for wind power.

— It set ambitious goals for the development of wind power that could result in 1,000 to 2,000 turbines being constructed along hundreds of miles of Maine’s landscape, including the highly prized mountaintops where wind blows hard and consistently.

— It opened every acre of the state’s 400 municipalities to fast-track wind development.

Baldacci said all this could be done without hurting Maine’s landscape or the tourism industry.

The legislation was based on the report of the Governor’s Task Force on Wind Power Development, whose members all favored wind power development and who, likewise, asserted that their blueprint for wind power development would return substantial rewards and could be pursued without sacrifice.

“Maine can become a leader in wind power development, while protecting Maine’s quality of place and natural resources, and delivering meaningful benefits to our economy, environment, and Maine people,” task force members wrote.

Now, as wind turbines are sprouting on Maine’s mountains accompanied by heavy machinery, roads, transmission lines, substations, wells and concrete plants, that certainty is yielding to doubt for some.

“I think people didn’t have a good appreciation of this, including us, for what the whole thing entails,” said Maine Audubon’s Jody Jones, a biologist who served on the task force. “This process was another step to better environmental policy, but there were clearly flaws.”

And members of LURC have recently indicated they’ll turn down TransCanada’s wind power development in an ecologically sensitive, high-elevation region near the Canadian border. The move was widely seen as a rebuke to the idea that wind power should be developed at all costs and enraged the developer and wind power promoters.

That the unanimity behind the wind power law is breaking down does not surprise Jones.

Momentum slipping

“People live near them, projects have been built, we can touch and feel them in a way that’s not theoretical. ... There isn’t the momentum for wind power at all costs that there was when the task force did its work,” Jones said.

That momentum may have papered over some significant differences among task force members that are now becoming more obvious.

As they neared completion of their report on wind power development in December 2007, Baldacci made the unusual move of sending his senior policy adviser, Karin Tilberg, to press task force members to issue a unanimous set of recommendations.

They did as Baldacci asked, and that unanimity, from a group whose members represented prominent environmental groups as well as wind power developers, set the stage for the bill’s unanimous passage through a legislative committee.

Once the committee passed the wind energy bill on to the full House and Senate, lawmakers there didn’t even debate it. They passed it unanimously and with no discussion.

House Majority Leader Hannah Pingree, a Democrat from North Haven, said legislators probably didn’t know how many turbines would be constructed in Maine if the law’s goals were met. The number is likely to be at least 1,000 and perhaps as high as 2,000.

Instead, they got carried along in the wave of enthusiasm that emerged from the administration, the legislative committee, wind power developers and the governor’s task force.

“Wind power was exciting,” says Pingree. “I think legislators had a sense we wanted to be bold and have the state be a real leader in this area. They may not have known how many turbines, or the challenges of siting that many turbines.”

An investigation by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting of the workings of the wind power task force through numerous interviews and a review of relevant documents reveals a number of problems with the law and its development:

— Appointing only wind power supporters to the task force and rushing the legislation through the Legislature failed to address public skepticism about the state’s wind power policy. Issues that might have been aired through a State House debate continue to be raised by a growing number of critics of wind power, who doubt the policy’s premises that wind power brings widespread economic benefits, moves Maine off fossil fuels or can be developed without compromising the quality of Maine’s landscape.

— Members of LURC, who review proposals for wind power development in unorganized territories, have expressed consternation about the contradictory and perhaps unachievable goals of the Wind Power Act: to promote wind power development, ensure communities get benefits from the development and protect the very parts of the Maine landscape where wind power turbines are likely to be built.

— The designation of “expedited wind power zones” along some of the state’s wildest mountaintops has raised the value of that real estate, since it’s now a target for wind power development. That had the unintended effect of creating competition for conservationists who want to protect that land.

— The task force ignored the need for massive new transmission line construction to move wind energy from turbines to market, which could be costly to ratepayers, disrupt habitat and landscape and engender significant opposition from towns and conservation groups.

— At least one significant task force recommendation — to allow the DEP commissioner to modify permits if wind turbines made too much noise — was left out of the governor’s bill that became the wind power law.

— One of the most crucial discussions held by the task force — what lands to open to expedited wind power development — is not in the public record. There were no minutes taken or produced for those final two meetings of the task force.

Baldacci still a believer

Gov. Baldacci remains steadfast in his support of wind power. He and Tilberg refused to grant the Center an interview in person, but Baldacci responded to questions in writing:

“I believe that reducing reliance on fossil fuels for energy in Maine and the region will greatly increase Maine’s quality of place by reducing carbon emissions, slowing climate change from greenhouse gases (which affects our forests, watersheds, oceans and fisheries, agriculture, wildlife and other natural resources), pushing natural gas off the margins in the bid stack and thereby reducing electricity costs, promoting energy security and self-reliance, and keeping Maine citizens’ dollars circulating in Maine and not being sent to other jurisdictions.

“For many people, including myself, quality of place includes living in a manner that does not push environmental or safety risks to other places and people.”

Land-based wind power development is certainly not dead in Maine. But the wind power bandwagon that came roaring out of the State House in 2008 is encountering obstacles that are slowing it down.

“Call it the bloom off the rose, call it the emperor being exposed as having no clothes,” said O’Neil. “As the public learns the truth about the impacts and the benefits of this sort of development, the public is losing its interest in industrial scale wind.”

Combine those homegrown obstacles with an increasingly tight credit market and uncertainty over continued government subsidies for the industry, and wind power development these days in Maine looks like much less of a sure thing than Baldacci, the Legislature, some environmentalists and the wind industry hoped it would be just two years ago.

Naomi Schalit is executive director and senior reporter of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonprofit and nonpartisan journalism organization based in Hallowell. E-mail: mainecenter@gmail.com. On the Web at pinetreewatchdog.org.

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Comments

 's picture

at last

Thanks to the SunJounnal and Mz.Schalit for the good article. Accurate and concise. Clair is wrong on a few points. The stat 90% of Mainers favor wind power is ridiculous. It does not differentiate between small home sized turbines and the industrial type. How the question is asked makes all the difference and the pollsters know this. I know some who favor the small size and are against the monsters. If one is in favor of alternative energy it does not automatically mean every type and at all costs. Stats can be misleading and are polls are slanted toward the desired result. If America never imported another drop of MidEast oil we would still be jumping into any armed conflict anywhere. That is what happens when money talks. If you want facts look up what has happened in Europe to bird and bat numbers since the installation of thousands of turbines. Europe's CO2 has risen also in spite of the alleged benefits of windsprawl. The imaginary benefits of windsprawl are not worth ruining the mtns. Many homeowners in Wisconsin and New York have abandoned their homes because they were too close to the windsprawl and nobody would buy. Maine has HydroQuebec offering cheaper power, but Baldacci's buddies don't want them here. Windsprawl is obsolete. If Toyota built a brand new Edsel, would you want one?

 's picture

Anger

In a recent article someone said that they couldn't understand the "irrational" anger of anti wind sentiments. I responded with my personal feelings about wind energy and its problems. Now we can add this article to my "irrationality."

Rob Pforzheimer's picture

and Naomi Shalit for pointing

and Naomi Shalit for pointing out some of the many negative impacts of industrial wind development.
The pre-emptive destruction of mountain top habitat and slaughter of birds and bats, to build inefficient generation and associated transmission lines, that we don't even need, in the name of saving the planet and jobs is insane.
Wind developers and political proponents are corrupt. Their claims of benefits are unproven and unverifiable, their so-called expert studies by paid consultants are bogus.
Wind Factories are:
NOT CLEAN, NOT GREEN, SCAM, HOAX, BOONDOGGLE,

Rob Pforzheimer's picture

Thanks Sun Journal

and Naomi Shalit for pointing out some of the many negative impacts of industrial wind development.
The pre-emptive destruction of mountain top habitat and slaughter of birds and bats, to build inefficient generation and associated transmission lines, that we don't even need, in the name of saving the planet and jobs is insane.
Wind developers and political proponents are corrupt. Their claims of benefits are unproven and unverifiable, their so-called expert studies by paid consultants are bogus.
Wind Factories are:
NOT CLEAN, NOT GREEN, SCAM, HOAX, BOONDOGGLE,

 's picture

Investigatvie Reporting, Bring it On!

Congratulations to Sun journal for having Ms. Shalit shed some investigative reporting truth on this dirty subject in Maine. The dirty, smelly, slime ridden Wind Industry is being exposed by citizens, and now REAL investigative reporting by an independent source.
Isn't it funny Baldacci doesn't wish to talk about it with her!
We all hope to see more of this in the Sun Journal. Kudos to SJ for having the light of real investigative reporting shine on the Maine Wind Scam.

Doreen Sheive's picture

And, lest we forget

This is another one of former Commissioner McGowan's many failures. He was such a great help in forcing through Baldacci's less than friendly agenda for the people of Maine. I so pray that neither McGowan nor Baldacci will be offered good jobs anywhere.

 's picture

wind power

This is just another example of how the Baldacci administration has pushed through what they want with no concern for any one of us residents. This also points out that the Maine Legislature does not do its job of oversight. Anyone who has dealt with the Legislature knows that simply by the timing of the legislation can be benefical. I have been involved with a couple of wind mill projects and, personally, saw the Baldacci administration push these projects through with no benefit to the residents. If the Governor cared one little bit about us, he would have been the first one to want the windmills to have a benefit to the residents of Maine. He did just the opposite -- his administration supported tax incentives without ensuring that some of the energy produced by the windmills would stay in Maine. Another message I have for the Governor is that you were suppose to lead the State of Maine not other states. You failed miserably.

William Downes's picture

A Self Inflicted Lobotomy

Thank you Ms. Schalit for your brilliant summary. When you consider that almost 90% of Mainers support wind power based upon the latest reported survey it is no wonder we find ourselves in the current predicament. The whole process is analogous to a committee of auto mechanics (no offense intended) planning and performing their first brain surgery. In the end the body still works but the mind has gone numb.

 's picture

Maine's freeride is coming to an end

How much longer does Maine think the rest of the country is going to pick up her tab? For every $1 in federal income tax coming out of Maine $1.79 is coming back. That means a 100% refund plus 79% subsidy folks. That subsidy is coming out of the pockets of taxpayers in other states. Some taxpayers are paying nearly double to bail Maine out. How much longer before there is an uprising and the federal government says no more and we are cutoff; than what?

Maine people have cast out virtually all industry for one reason or another. Maine claims tourism is the thing here. Have you noticed how few out of state cars are here. The airlines can't make a go of it there are so few passengers and two half baked airports only have outgoing flights at 630 in the morning and an income late at night that is half empty. There is nothing to bring people here, they sure do not want to visit beaches closed because we shit on them and leave dirty diapers on them. They don't want to walk our strrts to see the historic buildings and worry about dogs at large, dog poop all over the side walk, trash and broken beer bottles. Maine people have voted down casinos how many times? Plum Creek is still stalled. Flat out Maine has nothing to offer tourists, our young people short of welfare to girls popping out babies like pez dispensers which will be cutoff when the rest off the cutry cuts off the cash spigot, and living in uncivilized filthy conditions. These are all things ?aine has brought on herself and all things she can fix if she chooses or not and very soon pay the consequences.

 's picture

Maine's freeride is coming to an end

How much longer does Maine think the rest of the country is going to pick up her tab? For every $1 in federal income tax coming out of Maine $1.79 is coming back. That means a 100% refund plus 79% subsidy folks. That subsidy is coming out of the pockets of taxpayers in other states. Some taxpayers are paying nearly double to bail Maine out. How much longer before there is an uprising and the federal government says no more and we are cutoff; than what?

Maine people have cast out virtually all industry for one reason or another. Maine claims tourism is the thing here. Have you noticed how few out of state cars are here. The airlines can't make a go of it there are so few passengers and two half baked airports only have outgoing flights at 630 in the morning and an income late at night that is half empty. There is nothing to bring people here, they sure do not want to visit beaches closed because we shit on them and leave dirty diapers on them. They don't want to walk our strrts to see the historic buildings and worry about dogs at large, dog poop all over the side walk, trash and broken beer bottles. Maine people have voted down casinos how many times? Plum Creek is still stalled. Flat out Maine has nothing to offer tourists, our young people short of welfare to girls popping out babies like pez dispensers which will be cutoff when the rest off the cutry cuts off the cash spigot, and living in uncivilized filthy conditions. These are all things ?aine has brought on herself and all things she can fix if she chooses or not and very soon pay the consequences.

Doreen Sheive's picture

Your statement

Considering your statement, I don't know how you tolerate living in the State of Maine. I have friends who visit the state every year and are thrilled that it is so beautiful and clean. I think maybe, if you do live in the State of Maine, that you should move to another state to learn just how horrible Maine is not.

 's picture

Take the "free money" out of

Take the "free money" out of the equation and wind power is exposed to the elements. Another great Baldacci moment, supported by Pingree and her clueless cohorts. Before we permanently transform our landscape and disrupt peoples' lives, it would seem to make sense that we are darn sure what the end result will be. Idiots on parade for all to see.

Dan Moody's picture

Now

We can say that Maine is full of hot air > HA HA ( WIND )

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