The near-universal enthusiasm for wind power seen in the early days of the industry here in Maine has waned, in large part because of the complaints from those living near towers and turbines, which dominate the landscape and can produce annoying noise. As people hear about those complaints, sympathy for wind farm neighbors grows, as does wariness about the technology. While people may still support wind in the abstract, the thought of towers and turbines in their backyards tends to sour that support.
When wind power first arrived in Maine, many residents mistakenly believed they would be able to buy inexpensive power if their town hosted a project. Of course, this is not true. Wind power farms sell electricity to a regional grid, so residents are no more able to get cheap electricity than those living in Detroit are able to get discounts on Chevrolets and Fords.
A bill now taking shape in the Legislature could, if crafted correctly, grant benefits to those living in towns hosting wind power, and extend benefits to all Mainers, thus leveling the playing field for the industry and preventing wind power firms from playing towns against one another.
The original bill, proposed by Sen. Peter Mills, a Republican from Cornville who is also seeking his party’s nomination for governor, would have required wind power developers within areas where the state has allowed expedited permitting to provide reduced electricity rates to nearby residents. That part of the bill has been removed. Yet at the same time, existing law requires wind power developers to provide “tangible benefits” to host communities. The evolving new law would create a standard annual payment of $8,000 to $14,000 per megawatt of installed wind power capacity.
Sen. Mills, in outlining his general philosophy on wind power in Maine, suggests an excise tax on kilowatt-hours produced (rather than capacity). And rather than apply the tax to projects in the areas under which the expedited permitting applies, Sen. Mills suggests it be used throughout the state.
This would level the playing field for wind power developers, removing the uncertainty they face when they consider building in a community. And it would remove the burden of negotiating with power developers from municipal officials. In some instances, selectmen — who may be farmers or loggers by day — have had to sit across a table from $500 an hour attorneys, trying to negotiate an agreement that does not shortchange their town.
The revenue generated could be applied to lowering property taxes in the host community and perhaps nearby communities, if they are affected. A portion of the revenue also should go to the state to help defray regulatory costs.
Already, some in the industry are saying that taxing wind power could discourage investment and development in Maine. This is a real concern, but legislators should be able to strike a balance between an onerous, prohibitive tax and a reasonable way to generate revenue as a way of mitigating the problems associated with wind power.