Windy Forecast

Posted July 05, 2010, at 6:16 p.m.

Wind power in Maine, once the darling of both environmentalists and industrial boosters, is now seen more clearly and realistically, as many people around the state see towers and hear turbines whir from their living rooms. Wind turbines will not produce electricity too cheap to meter, as the nuclear power industry once claimed. And even though it does not hold nuclear power’s specter of catastrophic meltdown, wind turbines are not as benign as pine trees swaying in the mountaintop breeze.

Still, wind power holds great promise for Maine and the world, even if that promise is tempered by realistic expectations and some local opposition.

In a recent meeting with the Bangor Daily News’ editorial board, officials from First Wind were pleased to share the results of a survey of 400 randomly selected Mainers conducted last month that showed that 88 percent support wind energy. In November, a similar survey found 90 percent support.

On a local level where projects are proposed, that support may be weaker. Opposition, mostly centered on the sound of the blades turning, should remain a concern to the industry. First Wind officials assert there is no scientific evidence showing the sound causes health problems directly. Still, First Wind concedes that if someone is annoyed by the sound or it disrupts sleep, health problems can follow. It is imperative for the industry to ensure that turbines are far enough from homes to eliminate or mitigate the sound problem, or it risks losing public support.

First Wind bristles at critics who claim the industry is reaping generous tax incentives, and that the sale of power is not self-sustaining. Executive Vice President and CFO Kurt Adams notes that fossil fuels are subsidized to the tune of $13.7 billion annually. Tax credits for wind power are scheduled to run out in 10 years. Any new technology, whether it is laptop computers or DVD players, face big startup costs. With the potential to replace a portion of the nation’s fossil fuel portfolio, government is correct in underwriting part of that cost. Not only is wind power carbon-neutral, but it also allows energy dollars to stay in the state and country.

First Wind also objects to the characterization that construction and installation of wind turbines creates only temporary jobs. Mr. Adams notes that Reed & Reed contractors of Woolwich now counts wind power construction as 75 percent of its business; just as bridge repair jobs are “temporary,” they are an important economic driver, he said.

A string of wind turbines in your town doesn’t equate to an electricity discount, just as Wiscasset residents didn’t get free electricity when Maine Yankee was operating. But First Wind notes that wind power in Maine means Bangor Hydro and Central Maine Power customers will see at least $20 million in rate savings.

Wind power is not a savior, but it is part of the solution that will help carry the nation through the long, painful transition away from fossil fuel. That perspective should color debate on how and where it is implemented.

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