Wind Farms in Maine Stir a Power Struggle
The Bull Hill wind-farm project in Maine’s Township 16 has some local residents worrying about noise. Craig Dilger for The Wall Street Journal
TOWNSHIP 16, Maine—This state’s tree-filled hinterlands, long known for producing forest products and potatoes, are also suited for an export that has churned up debate: wind power.
The recent appetite for wind power comes largely from Massachusetts and Connecticut, where laws require rising use of renewable power. The two states combined have 70% of New England’s population but little available open space on land to build wind farms. Developers have turned to Maine, where they say land is expansive and strong winds are more abundant.
Maine already leads the region with more than 400 megawatts of wind power installed, according to the American Wind Energy Association, which said 1 megawatt of wind power can cover about 290 homes. Recently signed long-term contracts with utilities in Massachusetts and Connecticut could more than double that output in the next few years if the projects all come to fruition.
Plenty of locals welcome the development, helped by financial rewards tied to the projects, and the wind industry counted strong Maine support in a recent poll. Governors in Massachusetts and Connecticut said the recent deals will add clean energy to the grid at cost-effective rates.
But the situation has prompted some soul-searching as a number of residents worry more wind turbines will turn the woodsy state into New England’s utility closet. Vocal opponents also question wind power’s environmental merits and say turbines aren’t worth spoiled views or noise.
Larry Dunphy, a Republican state representative for a swath of rural Maine, recently posited a future when “you won’t be able to climb a mountain without seeing blinking red lights and spinning turbines.”
Lawsuits and permit appeals seeking to block projects are common, though it has proven difficult to get around a 2008 state law that spurred wind development, said Lynne Williams, an attorney in Bar Harbor who represents wind-farm opponents.
The law, passed under former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, set aggressive goals for adding wind power while simplifying the regulatory process in much of the state. Current Republican Gov. Paul LePage has been a wind-power critic, but Ms. Williams said wholesale changes have been a tough sell under both Democratic and GOP control.
There have been efforts to rein in wind-farm development on the edges. Mr. Dunphy sponsored a bill this year that he said would give some sparsely populated unorganized territories, which lack local government, more say over wind projects. The proposed change didn’t make it through the Senate, but Mr. Dunphy is continuing the push with the governor’s support.
“The governor feels as though the local populations that are most affected by these projects have been marginalized,” said Patrick Woodcock, who directs Mr. LePage’s energy office.
Jeremy Payne, executive director at the Maine Renewable Energy Association, disagreed that people in those areas lost a voice through the 2008 law. They need to form towns to pass ordinances, he said. He said wind power brings some economic development to backwoods regions that could use a boost. “This is something we should be embracing,” he said.
The Maine wind buildup also has raised concerns about the eventual need to strengthen transmission links to southern New England, to lessen the risk of curtailing that power due to grid bottlenecks, and debate about who will pay for them.
For now, developers say Maine remains an easier place to build in than other regional locales. Massachusetts has about 100 megawatts of its own wind power installed, according to the state, but a 12-year effort to build a wind farm off Cape Cod illustrates the challenge of building in crowded areas with well-financed opponents. The developer announced Monday that it signed a major turbine agreement for the project, which is in its financing phase, with Siemens Energy Inc.In Connecticut, opposition to some small wind proposals led to a 2011 moratorium on wind projects. Lawmakers said they want wind-specific siting rules before lifting the moratorium and have turned down multiple proposals.
Power-grid operator ISO New England Inc. said developers have requested to connect 1,275 megawatts of added wind power in Maine. Some projects may drop off the radar, and expiring federal subsidies could slow development. But mounting demand should still keep Maine busy this decade, said Paul Gaynor, chief executive at Boston-based developer First Wind, Maine’s biggest developer so far.
First Wind’s 19-tower Bull Hill project, which started generating power for a Massachusetts utility last year, sits on a remote,forested plateau in the unorganized Township 16. The turbines there recently spun steadily on a frigid day, tapping breezes hundreds of feet up despite calm weather on the ground. The 160-foot blades, three on each tower, generated a rhythmic whooshing as they passed the tower.
Other companies either already in Maine or expecting to build there include Spain’s Iberdrola SA, TransCanada Corp. and EDP Renewables, which is majority-owned by Energias de Portugal SA
In Oakfield, a remote northern town of about 740 people, retired electrical engineer Dennis Small is worried about noise from a $350 million, 48-tower First Wind project in early-stage construction. The facility will churn out megawatts under contract to customers in Massachusetts. He pointed to Mars Hill, another northern Maine town where noise and other complaints fueled confidential settlements between First Wind and nearby homeowners roughly two years ago, the homeowners’ attorney said.
Mr. Small said he shared in financial benefits for full-time residents, but thought it was a mistake to take a deal. “There are going to be some unhappy people here once [the windmills] start turning.”
Oakfield homeowners near the planned turbines have already struck undisclosed deals with the company, and town manager Dale Morris said community support has been strong overall, helped by modest incentives for full-time residents and millions for the town. “It will stabilize full-time resident households” in the low-income town, he said.
First Wind said its models sound more conservatively since Mars Hill, its first Maine project, and aims for more distance from homes. “We’ve learned from all our experiences,” said Dave Fowler, First Wind’s Northeast development director.