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Business and Economy

Bill Would Reverse Maine's Course on Wind Power Development

Courtesy: UPC Wind
First Wind's wind farm in Mars Hill Maine.

AUGUSTA, Maine - The future of wind energy in Maine is up in the air, as lawmakers consider a comprehensive bill that would ease the state's original goals for wind energy generation. Republican Rep. Beth O'Connor says her bill provides the kind of changes that are long overdue for opponents of wind turbine farms who feel their concerns are ignored. But supporters of wind power say O'Connor's bill threatens clean energy initiatives and Maine jobs.

O'Connor says that about 20 percent of New England's total generation capacity is likely to be retired within the next five years, so Maine lawmakers must act quickly, she said, to reassess the goals envisioned under the state's 2008 Wind Energy Act.

The Berwick Republican says wind power will never fill the void. And as for clean energy, O'Connor told the Legislature's Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee that Maine is clean enough.

"Maine already has the highest renewable portfolio in the nation and only two states' electricity sectors have lower CO2 emissions than Maine," O'Connor said. "We are doing great at being clean - now it's time to be smart."

O'Connor's bill would de-emphasize wind power's prominence in favor of other renewable energy resources, reduce the state goals for new wind energy development and require grid-scale wind energy developers to file decommissioning plans and to provide a performance bond to guarantee the funding for decommissioning.

And, she said, there's more. "This repeals the zone changes that made wind energy a permitted use," O'Connor said. "Thousands of residents choose to live in parts of Maine where, in 2008, a zoning decision that was made in Augusta - they lost their ability to participate in local land use regulation for one use. Sadly, the use 'wind' has become controversial because it has the greatest footprint impact of any land use in Maine history."

Chris O'Neil represents Friends of Maine's Mountains, which asked O'Connor to sponsor the bill. He says the measure is also aimed at prioritizing what's called "firm capacity" - that is, generators that can provide power on demand.

"Sections one through seven essentially re-prioritize our energy strategy to firm capacity," O'Neil said. " 'Firm' is a word that will probably engender some legalese debate and calisthenics, but the basic premise behind it is 'dispatchable firm.' "

But Rep. Jeff Pierce, a Dresden Republican, says the change in strategy would be a setback for his constituents. Pierce says he has hundreds of construction workers in his district who are employed in the wind energy construction sector and that many of the complaints made against the wind turbines no longer apply.

"Wind farms have a smaller footprint now than ever, since they've shifted from open lattice towers - cats and windshields kill more birds than wind towers," Pierce said. "Proposed wind projects in Maine offer electricity rates at less than 5 percent a kilowatt hour now due to turbine technologies. Yes, the old turbines were noisy and less efficient, and as we get better at things, just like solar power, the technology gets better and better."

The Legislature's Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee is slated to continue its review of the wind energy bill later this month.