Against the Wind
A Dissenting Opinion By Robert Kimber.
Photograph by Butch Moor/Aerial Photography of Maine
For years now, one Maine newspaper editorial after another has characterized wind-power opponents as retrograde Nimbys who would rather see the planet cook itself to death than let a few hilltop turbines spoil their view. How, the wind-power champions argue, can anyone worry about such trivial matters as views when the fate of the planet is at stake?
If polls are to be believed, wind-power skeptics constitute a distinct minority. A 2009 poll of Maine residents done for Critical Insights, Inc., in Portland, found nine out of ten respondents in support of developing wind power in Maine. But polls or no, anyone who has been watching the wind-power skirmishes can’t fail to realize that every group formed to battle those projects swells the ranks of the disenchanted — Friends of the Boundary Mountains, Friends of the Western Mountains, Friends of the Highland Mountains, Friends of Maine’s Mountains, the Citizens’ Task Force on Wind Power.
As the names of most of these groups suggest, they formed in opposition to grid-scale wind-power installations in the western mountains where many of the most desirable sites, from a wind-power developer’s point of view, are located. The opponents’ objections have focused not only on the site-specific damage wind-power projects inflict on fragile high-elevation soils, alpine plant communities, and rare animal species, but also on the degradation of scenic and recreational values and on the transformation of Maine’s wildlands to industrial sites with skyscraping turbines that can be seen for miles around.
While the western mountains may have been the first places the developers were after because of the strong and consistent winds at high elevations, other ridges throughout the North Woods with lower elevations and wind speeds are proving commercially viable for wind projects now, too. A Bangor Daily News story reported on December 16, 2010, that the Maine Professional Guides Association, the Maine Sporting Camps Association, and the Partnership for the Preservation of the Downeast Lakes Watershed joined together and petitioned Governor-elect LePage to impose a moratorium on wind-power development and even repeal the Wind Power Act.
“The unspoiled lands, waters, and natural character of inland Maine’s landscape are what attract clientele to our associations’ doorsteps,” the group’s statement said. “Unfortunately, industrial-scale wind power projects have far-reaching impacts well beyond the actual project site. Our current knowledge of the impacts that these wind farms may have on wildlife large and small is insufficient to provide comfort to those of us who depend on that resource for our economic survival.”
For people who believe one of Maine’s highest conservation priorities should be the preservation of the state’s unorganized territories as the timberlands and outdoor-recreational lands they have traditionally been — and I count myself among those people — the greatest threat to the North Woods is large-scale development of any kind. What the state’s goal of three thousand megawatts of installed wind-power capacity by 2020 means on the ground, assuming use of three-megawatt turbines spaced approximately as they are in the Kibby project, is a minimum of a thousand turbines spread over three hundred miles of high-elevation ridges and mountaintops.
And wherever turbines are installed, transmission lines, which further fragment the landscape, must be built.
So, to keep development out of the wildlands, why not locate wind-power plants in already settled areas that have acceptable wind resources, places like Mars Hill and Vinalhaven? That seemed like a good idea until the plants were up and running and nearby residents started complaining about noise and the flicker effect. Now add these people to people like me who advocate for keeping the wildlands as wild as possible, and finally include the people who have been reading about the unhappy folks in Mars Hill and Vinalhaven, and you have a growing number of people increasingly antagonistic toward it.
But even more telling is the entrance of some new voices, members of the establishment who can’t be dismissed as disgruntled cranks and who are beginning to raise questions about the long-term impacts of wind power in Maine and failings in the wind-power permitting process.
Prominent among them is Alan Stearns, deputy director of the Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL). Responding to a Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) request for comment on TransCanada’s application to expand its Kibby Mountain wind-power project about four miles westward onto Sisk Mountain, Stearns is highly critical of TransCanada’s scenic-impact assessment. This Kibby Expansion application was certainly deserving of scrutiny because of Sisk Mountain’s location adjacent to the Arnold Trail to Quebec Historic District, the Chain of Ponds Public Land Unit, and several miles of a Maine Scenic Highway. But as Stearns made clear, he was not, as a spokesman for BPL, opposing the Kibby Expansion. He uses this case to address the larger issue of cumulative impacts: If you put one big wind-power plant on a mountaintop and follow it by another and another, then after a while you’ll see wind-power plants wherever you are, and Maine’s unorganized territory will have lost the beauty and that quality of remoteness that make it so attractive both to visitors and residents alike.
Simply by raising the question of cumulative impacts on scenic values, Stearns homes in on an issue that wind-power skeptics feel has gotten short shrift in the wind-power discussion so far. Where the permitting process and the state’s recently adopted Wind Power Act focus on the protection of “scenic resources of state and national significance,” critics feel that focus is too narrow. Of course people in Maine care about the mountains along the Appalachian Trail, but don’t they care just as much about the hills and mountains they see out their kitchen windows? Scenic beauty makes up about 90 percent of what the think tankers and politicians are really talking about when they talk about “quality of place.” Scenic beauty is, I would wager, one of the most important reasons why Maine people, whether native or from away, choose to live here. Maine’s natural beauty is its defining characteristic, its greatest attraction.
But scenic impacts were not the only ones at issue in the Kibby Expansion case, which LURC, in its first round of deliberations, decided against TransCanada. The project’s opponents convinced the commission that TransCanada’s proposal for fifteen turbines on Sisk Mountain would indeed inflict “undue adverse impacts” not only on the scenic resources but also on breeding habitat for the Bicknell’s thrush, listed by Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife as a species of special concern, and on Sisk’s fir-heart-leaved birch subalpine forest. However, after LURC’s August 2010 meeting, when the commission voted to deny the fifteen-turbine proposal, TransCanada petitioned to reopen the record and subsequently submitted an application for an eleven-turbine project, a compromise that won over five of the commissioners. The only dissenter was Rebecca Kurtz. “If we can’t protect this [area],” she said, “let’s just throw away the CLUP [Comprehensive Land Use Plan]. This is the most sensitive of the sensitive, and the benefits [of the project] do not warrant destroying — and when I say ‘destroying’ I do not use that word loosely or lightly — that habitat and the ecosystem on that ridgeline.”
What the Kibby Expansion proceedings demonstrated once again is how helpless LURC is under current law to prevent cumulative impact from wind-power development and protect sensitive mountain resources. The self-contradictory nature of LURC’s statutes and guiding policy documents makes the commission’s task well nigh impossible to begin with, but if you add into that mix the Wind Power Act with its imperative to build installed capacity of three thousand megawatts by 2020, the commission’s task becomes outright impossible. The balancing game played with as land-hungry and highly visible projects as wind-power installations will inevitably result in progressive degradation of Maine’s mountain and backcountry terrain.
Doubts and second thoughts about Maine’s Wind Power Act are not, however, the exclusive property of state agency officials like Alan Stearns. Energy-industry insiders and observers, both in Maine and nationwide, are raising objections to big, centralized wind farms and the massive transmission lines that go with them.
Mark Isaacson of Competitive Energy Services in Portland has been a partner in two hydroelectric plants in Maine and, after some experience trying to site wind projects in the face of citizen opposition, is now promoting the idea of dispersed solar facilities, which have several advantages over wind: They can be located in and near communities because they are neither noisy nor visually intrusive and require less land area. Because sunlight is available everywhere, there is no need to place them on remote mountaintops to capture optimum winds or to build long, expensive, landscape-disruptive transmission lines.
Looking at ISO-New England’s 2030 transmission scenario for 12,000 megawatts of wind-power capacity in New England, 4,500 of which would be land-based in Maine, Isaacson found this plan would require a new high-voltage transmission loop that would encircle most of northern Maine and extend south as far as Connecticut. In short, the landscape impacts would be massive, as would the cost, an estimated $25 billion for the main line alone.
In an article titled “Think Solar, Think Small” that appeared in The Nation, Craig D. Rose echoes Isaacson’s conclusions and makes the same case for small-scale, widely dispersed generation. “Although massive expansion of the electric grid threatens to despoil the last of America’s undeveloped places,” Rose writes, “some environmentalists mistakenly believe the urgency of dealing with climate change leaves no alternative…. In fact, there is an alternative: ‘distributed generation,’ or smaller solar technology installations on rooftops and near existing transmission lines, or even scaled-down wind farms sited closer to consumers.”
According to a study by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Maine has renewable-energy potential nearly six times its current energy production, with about half that potential in onshore wind. But if Maine is to become the chief source of wind-generated energy to feed southern New England’s appetite for power — a role that wind-power companies and Maine’s state government have fast-tracked us into assuming — then the future for Maine’s quality of place looks bleak indeed. Offshore wind —should it prove practical and economically feasible — will not change that picture. Onshore development will always be cheaper than offshore, and as long as government subsidies are available for wind, developers will be in line with new onshore projects.
But that need not be the case. Think energy conservation first of all, then think small. Think microgrids and micropower, think rooftop solar and backyard wind, think solar panels on highway rights-of-way and on canopies over parking lots. Think tidal and geothermal and whatever other options there are that most of us haven’t even heard of yet. Who knows? We may even find a little room for some of those “scaled-down wind farms sited closer to consumers” that Craig Rose mentions. Above all, don’t think big, remote power plants that need hundreds and thousands of miles of transmission lines to deliver power to their customers.
It’s time the legislature replaced Maine’s Wind Power Act with a Renewable-Energy Act that provides unequivocal protection for Maine mountains over 2,700 feet and redefines wind power’s role as just one source of renewable energy among many, limiting it in scale, location, and type to protect Maine’s backcountry and the small-town, rural landscapes that are the heart and soul of this state.
Even a Nimby might be willing to consider that kind of wind power.