Wind Ban Wrong

Posted Feb. 24, 2010, at 6:27 p.m.

A plea for the state to put a moratorium on large-scale wind power projects reflects sincere and perhaps well-founded concerns, but it is the wrong step for government to take. This burgeoning industry may have problems, particularly relating to its proximity to residential areas. But putting this energy sector into a deep freeze for six months or more could send multimillion-dollar businesses to other states and leave Maine on the outside looking in on the next energy wave.

The Baldacci administration has rejected the moratorium request, but opposition remains passionate. That opposition centers on one key concern — noise. Some who live near the turbines say the low-frequency “whoop, whoop” sound is maddeningly annoying at best and perhaps physiologically debilitating at worst.

Once the offensive noise threshold is breached, people can find many other reasons to oppose wind power. The towers are visually jarring as they rise from ridge tops; they don’t deliver on their promise of clean energy because conventional power plants must remain online due to the intermittent nature of wind; they are so heavily subsidized by federal tax breaks that developers are building wind farms as a no-risk investment.

But at the heart of the debate is sound.

The industry was passive on setbacks in the early days of siting the towers and turbines. Communities relied on ordinances adapted from other industrial projects, or took the word of developers. That was a mistake. Most notably in Mars Hill, where the state’s first major wind power project was built, residents tell horror stories about not being able to sleep.

In response to this anecdotal information, some towns have adopted their own ordinances to protect residents. Two small towns, Jackson in Waldo County and Dixmont in Penobscot County, each adopted a one-mile setback from houses. That may be enough distance or too much or not enough.

Better data is needed, and it is needed soon.

State law expediting the review of new projects has been an irritant to those wary of the supposed wonders of wind power. They argue, somewhat persuasively, that state government is so bullish on wind that it is turning a blind eye to problems.

But considered in the context of climate change, the costs of building new electricity generating plants that burn coal, oil and natural gas, and the long-term problems of nuclear power, wind power is an obvious low-impact piece of the energy puzzle.

If developers are racing to cash in on the wind boom, state regulators need not call a timeout. Instead, they must work to find the right setback distances, encourage the innovation that will reduce or eliminate the sound problem and push for wind turbines in urban settings. At the same time, they must continue to look for ways to reap long-term wind power benefits for Maine businesses and residents.

Wind power’s boom days shouldn’t mean Maine closes its eyes to potential problems; but the state cannot afford to condemn a technology that will likely be a fixture in the nation’s energy portfolio for decades.

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