AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. John Baldacci and a national energy expert on Tuesday touted Maine’s capacity to become a major producer of wind power and manufacturing jobs as the nation shifts to greener sources of energy.
But just outside the wind energy conference where the two men spoke, several dozen protesters accused the Baldacci administration and wind power companies of ignoring the impacts that the enormous turbines can have on the health and property values of nearby residents as well as on wildlife.
The Maine Wind Energy Conference brought together about 300 representatives of government agencies, nonprofits and energy-related businesses at the Augusta Civic Center. The event was sponsored by the Maine Small Wind Working Group and about a dozen other partners.
During his opening remarks, Baldacci said he and other participants on a recent wind power-related trade mission to Europe came back energized after seeing examples and hearing ideas that could be replicated in Maine.
In addition to expanding green energy production, Maine is well positioned to tap into its manufacturing know-how, such as in the ship-building industry, to construct turbines, blades and other components locally, Baldacci said. Maine is also working to be a national leader in the development of floating offshore wind turbines that can be deployed in the deep waters of the Gulf of Maine, where the vast majority of the state’s best wind resources are located.
“This opportunity isn’t going to come along very often,” Baldacci said. “We have got to work together, and that means the people who don’t like what we are doing and the people who criticize what is being done. Everybody needs to be heard from and to be able to have participatory debate and discussion. But we need to take action.”
Wind power facilities in Maine have the capacity to generate about 100 megawatts of electricity, although actual production is often much less due to the inconsistency of winds. While a leader in New England, Maine is well behind states like Minnesota and Iowa that can already generate up to 10 percent of their power from wind.
State officials have set a goal of generating at least 2,000 megawatts of wind energy from inland and offshore sources in Maine by 2015. If all of the wind projects under construction and in development were actually built, Maine would be nearly 43 percent of the way toward that goal, according to figures supplied by the Governor’s Office of Energy Independence and Security.
Larry Flowers, principal project leader at the federal government’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Wind Powering America Program, said 26 states currently have more than 100 megawatts of wind energy installed and nine states have more than 1,000 megawatts.
The most successful states have the policies, economics, political leadership and transmission infrastructure in place. As the nation prepares to address climate change — potentially through a cap-and-trade system that forces industries to pay for each ton of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide that is emitted — wind energy could become the cheapest form of energy.
Flowers said wind energy is now economically competitive with other new energy sources being installed due to the cost of pollution controls and future uncertainty over the price of fossil fuels.
“Wind is fully competitive with most markets of new generation of traditional sources,” he said.
Conference attendees didn’t have to travel far to hear from critics of where some of the wind farms have been built and proposed in Maine.
Among the protesters gathered outside the Civic Center was Steve Bennett, who lives 2,900 feet from one of three turbines built by Beaver Ridge Wind LLC in Freedom.
Bennett said the sun causes a “flicker” from the spinning blades that, in turn, creates a strobe effect inside the kitchen of his 200-year-old home. The strobe effect and appearance of movement is strong enough to make some people feel ill, he said.
Neighbors living even closer to the turbines, some of whom have young children, are reporting problems sleeping at night due to the noise and vibrations from the blades, he said.
He and other protesters accused wind energy companies of reaping large profits by taking advantage of small towns unprepared to deal with the large projects. They also accused the Baldacci administration of pushing wind power projects through a regulatory review process that they claim is steeply tilted in the industry’s favor.
“I am here today because what has happened to us is wrong, and I don’t want to see it happen to other towns,” Bennett said.
Jonathan Carter with the Forest Ecology Network said all of the protesters are “absolutely supportive” of wind power.
“We recognize it is critical to dealing with the catastrophic impacts of climate change,” Carter said. “The problem is they are not being driven by ecological sense. It is being driven by greed.”