Bernard Stickney waves his hand at the nine other people sitting around the long table in the back room of Al's Diner in Mars Hill. "What we want people to understand is, every single one of us here is for clean energy," he says earnestly. "But you can't put these things in people's front yards."
"These things" are the twenty-eight wind turbines owned by UPC Wind, Inc., lined up along the top of Mars Hill Mountain. The town of Mars Hill, a potato and trucking industry center on Route 1 between Houlton and Presque Isle, is home to Maine's first and, so far, only wind farm. As such, it is the test bed for all that is good and not so good about wind power in Maine. So far, Stickney and his neighbors haven't been impressed.
With the failure of two other wind power proposals - a thirty-turbine project in Redington Township outside Rangeley and a three-unit installation in the town of Freedom in central Maine - the Mars Hill experience raises the question of wind power's future in the state. An energy technology praised as the green alternative to fossil fuels and one of the solutions to global climate change has produced controversies that have split the environmental community in Maine and made enemies of natural allies.
For wind power's proponents, Maine's reputation as an environmentally aware state has taken an ironic twist. If every proposed project is going to face lengthy hearings, expensive delays, and loud criticism over noise, endangered species, remote wilderness preservation, and bird and bat mortality levels, why bother? If wind energy isn't suitable for an isolated ridgeline in the western mountains or a backwoods farm in Freedom or a small mountain rising out of the potato fields of Aroostook County, where exactly is wind power welcome in Maine?
"The Maine track record right now is one for three," points out Paul Gaynor, president and CEO of UPC Wind. "Typically speaking, that's a bad average." Nonetheless, UPC Wind is going ahead with plans to develop an even larger project on Stetson Mountain in eastern Maine. "My guess is that Maine has the potential to produce one thousand megawatts of wind power," says Gaynor, enough to supply about 150,000 homes. "There are a lot of good wind sites there."
In January, in an unexpected move, the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) board slapped down a staff recommendation for approval and voted against one of the longest running and most controversial wind power proposals in Maine, a ninety-megawatt, $130-million facility on two mountaintops in Redington Township. Initially the decision was seen as a fatal blow to the future of wind power in Maine, but at least two other projects are still moving ahead, much to the surprise of many observers.
"I was concerned that other wind power developers would be shaking in their boots after the commissioners' decision," says Catherine Carroll, executive director of LURC, which oversees all development in the Unorganized Territories of Maine. (The Department of Environmental Protection handles permitting for organized territory, such as Mars Hill.) "But in talking with [the developers], they all feel that they're different in terms of location and potential impacts. I think the decision the commissioners made on Redington has to be considered independent of any other wind power project."
Attorney Jeff Thaler, who represented Maine Mountain Power in the Redington project, thinks there's a place for wind power in Maine, too, but he adds that it will take an attitude shift to make it happen on a large scale. "One of the lessons from Redington is that people still have not adjusted to the twenty-first century need for a different environmental paradigm," offers Thaler, who has a long history of environmental advocacy in Maine.
"We can't act as we did in the twentieth century, rejecting every energy project that came along," Thaler continues. "That's particularly true now, given the situation with global oil supplies, the political volatility surrounding oil, and the price volatility with natural gas, and given the dramatic consequences we in Maine will suffer in terms of climate change if we don't do something to address the issue."
Standing on the concrete foundation of one of the Mars Hill turbines, the slowly spinning vanes make a sound almost exactly like that of a jet aircraft passing high overhead. The turbines start turning in wind speeds as low as seven to eight miles an hour and reach peak power production at around thirty miles an hour. "Maine has a very good wind resource," notes UPC Wind's on-site operations manager, Ryan Fonbuena. "We've had only four days since November without any wind."
Fonbuena has worked on wind power sites all over the world and moved to Aroostook County with his wife and two small children last year. They now live in Presque Isle, and they like northern Maine so much that Fonbuena recently turned down an offer to move to UPC's wind farm on Maui. "Our daughter's school is right around the corner from our house," says the California native. "This is a great place to raise kids."
The white turbines are visible from up to fifty miles away. The blades turn relatively slowly, only twenty times a minute or so even in high winds, and thus pose a much smaller danger to birds and bats than earlier models that tainted the industry's reputation in the 1980s. Seen in isolation, there's even a sort of post-industrial beauty to the machines.
Although rated at forty-two megawatts of generating capacity, the installation rarely reaches that potential because of erratic wind speeds. Generally speaking a wind farm produces upwards of half its nominal capacity, so that it takes a hundred megawatts of wind capacity to replace a fifty-megawatt coal-fired power plant.
UPC maintains a permanent staff of seven people to oversee the Mars Hill installation. General Electric, which has the maintenance contract, routinely has another four to ten specialists on site. The turbines require servicing twice a year, with access provided by ladders inside the 389-foot towers. "The view from the top of one of the turbines is unbelievable," says Fonbuena.
Rod Mahan doesn't say the same for the view from the deck of his house at the foot of the mountain. "I had no idea how big those things would be," he allows, looking up at the row of wind turbines. Although his house is two and a half to three miles from the turbines, he says their thrumming sound has awakened him at night.
Other residents on the north and east side of the mountain have the same complaint. "[The noise] woke me up out of a sound sleep at 3 a.m. on a windy night recently," offers Merle Cowperthwaite. "When we talk to people about this, they think we're crazy. They drive out and roll their car window down four or five inches and can't hear anything and figure that's it."
Mahan, a Mars Hill native who works for the local cable television company, says he and many other residents didn't find out about the project until two months after the town had signed an agreement with UPC Wind. "The townspeople were never given the chance to say what they wanted, for or against," he says. "The only meeting the town had [about the project], we were told as soon as we arrived that it was a done deal and we couldn't do anything about it because it was all private property."
The project's environmental permits are through the Department of Environmental Protection, whose rules do not require a public hearing. Interested parties can request a hearing, but "no one told us we could do that," Mahan says.
Although small, with a population of barely 1,400 people, Mars Hill gave up its annual town meeting almost twenty years ago in favor of a council-manager form of government. Mahan is working to bring back the town meeting as a check on what he perceives as a secretive and unresponsive town government.
Town Manager Ray Mersereau defends the wind project as an economic boon for the town - UPC Wind will pay five hundred thousand dollars in property taxes every year for the next twenty years through a special tax increment financing agreement. He was expecting some "fuss," as he puts it, about the turbines' impact on the mountain's appearance, but not the level of criticism that has emerged since the towers began operating. "The only thing I had not expected was any complaint about noise," he admits. "I said from the beginning that noise was not an issue. Obviously I was wrong."
Mersereau admits some folks don't like the new Mars Hill Mountain. "To some people we've desecrated it," he says. "But there were ten towers up there before - television, radio, cellphone towers. The ski area has been there since 1960."
Neither the communications towers nor the ski area, though, dominate the mountain the way the wind turbines do. LURC's commissioners rejected the Redington wind project mostly because its turbines would be seen by a few thousand people every year from the Appalachian Trail. Tens of thousands of people see Mars Hill and its turbines every day from Route 1.
Perhaps something else Mersereau didn't foresee was that the Mars Hill project would create a cadre of wind power opponents willing to travel and share their experiences. Resident Perrin Todd's testimony about the noise problem at his house on the northeast side of Mars Hill Mountain was a key reason the Freedom Zoning Board of Appeals voted in March to deny a permit for three wind turbines in the rural Waldo County town.
"We're desperate to have people understand what's going to happen to them," Mahan explains. "It's too late for us, but maybe we can help other people."
Today Mahan admits that, if there had been a town vote on the Mars Hill wind project when it was first proposed, it probably would have passed. "But at least a lot of information would have come out then that didn't [come out] until afterwards," he adds. "There was so much we didn't know."
If wind power is in its infancy in Maine, Redington and Mars Hill can be described as first steps, learning experiences on the way to walking with confidence. LURC's Catherine Carroll says the agency's new comprehensive plan, scheduled for completion later this year, will devote an entire chapter to wind farms and other alternative energy sources. Attorney Thaler says he expects Governor John Baldacci and the legislature to act soon on a measure to require LURC and the DEP to reconcile their various wind-farm regulations into a common set of criteria, such as was done for hydropower applications in the late 1970s.
"Right now there's no common policy on wind power siting in Maine," he notes. "Redington was an unfortunate guinea pig, the first project through the pipeline. But its failure is prompting people in Augusta to look at wind power standards."
Even without those actions, though, Maine's current site laws and environmental permitting rules are considered among the clearest, although not the easiest, that wind developers face. "Maine has become one of the more practical places we deal with in terms of schedules and scoping out permit requirements and impacts," says UPC president Gaynor. "The biggest differentiator in my mind is the permitting process. Maine has discreet review periods [usually 180 days] and central permitting agencies [LURC and DEP]. In New York State, for example, there is no central agency that handles evaluations and permits, and the process can go on for years."
UPC Wind has wind projects operating or under construction in Hawaii, Vermont, New York, and Ontario, and the company has plans to develop another ten to thirteen wind farms in the next two years. Among them is the $100-million Stetson Mountain project, which would erect thirty-eight turbines on a ridgeline on the east side of Route 169 between Danforth and Springfield in northern Washington County.
It's telling that, in talking about the Stetson Mountain project, Gaynor makes a point of noting its isolation. The closest residence, a seasonal camp, is more than 2,500 feet away, versus about 1,200 for Mars Hill, and the ridgeline already has a network of roads in place from logging operations. With a maximum elevation of just over a thousand feet, Stetson does not raise the issue of hosting fragile alpine habitats that the Redington project did.
The other major project in the pipeline is the Boundary Mountains wind farm on the border with Quebec in western Maine. TransCanada Energy Ltd. expects to invest some $250 million to build forty-four three-megawatt turbines in Kibby and Skinner townships a few miles north of Eustis.
"The adjacency to the Appalachian Trail is what killed the Redington project," Carroll notes. "TransCanada is in a more remote location more than fifteen miles away from the trail."
But its very remoteness poses a potential problem. Rumblings are already being heard within some sectors of the environmental community about the project's impact on an undeveloped wilderness area.
The learning process is working both ways. Maine Audubon Society executive director Kevin Carley carefully prefaces his comments by noting that the organization hasn't done a full review of the two projects' applications yet, but "from our preliminary look at them they are sites that are less problematic [than Redington]. We haven't taken a stand yet, but we're looking forward to having wind power projects proposed that we can support."
Maine Audubon took some serious hits to its reputation with the environmental community and the public - and reportedly lost some longtime members, including Thaler - over its adamant opposition to the Redington project, much more so than other opponents such as the National Park Service and the Appalachian Trail Club. It didn't help that National Audubon Society president John Flicker announced the organization's firm support of wind power just a couple of months before LURC's decision.
"I've been saying all along that this was a very difficult issue for us and we do support properly sited wind projects," Carley explains. "Then the first project comes along and we oppose it. It's easy to line up against the bad guys, but this was not one of those cases."
Carley sounds absolutely mournful over the Redington issue and its fallout. "Redington was a perfect storm of issues: alpine habitat destruction, endangered species, extensive road construction, near a conservation area and the Appalachian Trail," he explains. "Folks who have taken the time to look at our position can say they don't necessarily agree with us but they understand our reasoning."
LURC's Carroll puts a high priority on finding some balance in the wind power debate. "If you put these things near people, you're going to have noise complaints," she says. "In the middle of the woods no one is going to hear them, but someone will complain about destroying pristine habitat . . . I don't have the perfect answer."
"We have to find some answers," Thaler adds, "because we need many Redingtons. If we don't and global warming and climate change continue, the habitat [that people fear will be damaged by wind farms] will disappear and never come back."