Wind company cuts number of turbines in Somerset County plan

Posted Dec. 28, 2010, at 3:20 p.m.

AUGUSTA — Independence Wind on Tuesday filed a revised application with the Land Use Regulation Commission for the Highland Wind project that, among other changes, reduces the number of mountaintop turbines from 48 to 39.

The $210 million project is proposed for Highland Plantation in Somerset County.

Independence Wind initially filed an application with LURC about a year ago, said former Gov. Angus King, one of the principals in the company. But the company had to clear up details over its connection to the grid, which it has in its revised application through a deal with Central Maine Power, King said.

The revised plan removes the turbines closest to the Appalachian Trail and the Bigelow Preserve. All turbines in the project would be more than eight miles away from the preserve’s highest point, Avery Peak, King said. The plan also proposes $6,000 grants for local homeowners for energy upgrades at their home, in some cases providing low-cost power from the wind farm to help residents heat homes.

It would reduce new access road construction associated with the project by more than 30 percent, the company said, and the project’s turbines would all be located in an area already designated as appropriate for wind power development.

King said the company made the reductions after continued talks with the Appalachian Trail community.

“I don’t know if it will satisfy the Appalachian Trail community, but it’s certainly a good-faith gesture,” said King, adding that the elimination of those turbines represented a 25 percent loss in power production for the project.

The project backers also are giving the state a permanent easement prohibiting wind power development on the ridge where the removed turbines were to have been located, as well as more than $750,000 to be used for land conservation in the project area.

The project, like other wind farm proposals, has faced some resistance. It continued to see opposition Tuesday.

“It is quite baffling that Angus King managed to continue to want to destroy the mountain, whatever mitigation he has decided to do,” said Monique Aniel, co-chairwoman of the Citizen’s Task Force on Wind Power, a group opposing wind farms around the state, “for a project that is not going to produce cheap electricity, for a project that is going to destroy a complete ecological system, for a project seen where people recreate.”

Jonathan Carter, director of the Forest Ecology Network and a resident in the region where the project is proposed, called the plan “ill-conceived,” in spite of the reduction in turbines, creation of conservation easements and local energy grants.

“These changes are just window dressing being used as part of a PR campaign in an attempt to delude the public and influence the LURC regulatory process,” Carter said in a statement Tuesday. “This new proposal remains an ecological disaster and an economic boondoggle.”

The new application includes a “Wind for Oil” program available to local Highland homeowners, which begins with a $6,000 fossil fuel reduction grant to each household in the community, the company said. There are about two dozen households in the community, and they would be able to use them for energy efficiency or for fossil fuel reduction improvements, such as weatherization measures, the addition of solar panels or the installation of electricity-based thermal storage heating systems, which essentially use off-peak power to store heat in households, to be used as needed. The households using the storage units would be provided with power at a discounted cost, which would be equivalent to about $1.15 per gallon of oil.

Independent Wind has been working with Thermal Energy Storage of Maine, a Biddeford company, on the thermal storage part of the project. Thermal Energy Storage is the exclusive manufacturer’s representative in Maine for Steffes Corp., the North Dakota-based manufacturer of the storage unit systems.

Sam Zaitlin, Thermal Energy Storage president, said the technology was developed after World War II and is in use in Europe, Canada and roughly half of the states in the U.S. It was offered in Maine by CMP and Bangor Hydro about 25 years ago, he said, but didn’t catch on because of the low cost of oil and other factors.

“This is not some new development, some new technology,” Zaitlin said. “The only thing new about it is it hasn’t been introduced in Maine for 20-some years. It is ubiquitous in other parts of America, and surely Europe.”

Today, he said, the high cost of oil, concern about the environment and off-peak electric pricing may make the technology attractive. His company plans to begin offering units in the first quarter of 2011, he said.

Zaitlin said a unit that would heat a typical home would cost between $8,000 and $10,000, plus another $1,200 or so in upgrades to the electrical service, if needed.

King said he thought the pilot project of providing low-cost power to help heat homes in the community would help homeowners see the tangible benefits of wind in their region.

“The idea is to substitute wind-generated electricity for oil heat,” King said. “We want people, when they see the turbines on the ridgelines, to think, ‘I’ve got a piece of this.’”

King said the filing of the revised application will restart the LURC process. The commission has 30 days to deem the application complete or not. If it’s complete, LURC will schedule a public hearing, likely in March or April, King said. A decision would be expected in roughly nine months, he said.

According to project backers, the wind farm would produce about 325 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year, the equivalent of the electricity usage of about 44,000 Maine households.

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