FREEPORT, Maine — About 100 self-described “wind warriors” gathered Saturday to plan their strategy for fighting a rapidly growing wind energy industry that critics claim is destroying mountaintops and livelihoods while offering little benefit to Maine.
The Mountaintop Industrial Wind Legislative Summit drew anti-wind power activists of all stripes and from all corners of Maine, from longtime environmentalists from the south to registered guides from the western mountains and business owners from the midcoast.
Many of the attendees were leaders of their local organizations that sprang up in response to industrial wind energy projects proposed near their homes or favorite recreational spot.
Their aim: share war stories, network and, most importantly, gear up for a legislative session in which Maine’s burgeoning, big-money wind power industry is being targeted by critics like never before.
“We do not stand a snowball’s chance in hell of getting any legislation passed in this state unless every one of us finds out who is who and talks to the people in power in Augusta,” said Brad Blake, a leader of the Friends of Lincoln Lakes group that has been fighting in Augusta and in the courts to stop a project in northern Penobscot County.
Maine has emerged as a leader in the Northeast for wind power generation as well as an attractive destination for development companies. Nearly 200 industrial turbines — most standing nearly 400 feet tall, from base to blade tip — are now spinning or being built in locations from Aroostook County to Vinalhaven in Penobscot Bay.
Dozens of additional projects have been proposed throughout the state.
Polls suggest the industry enjoys strong support among the vast majority of Mainers. But opposition to large-scale wind projects has been growing. And as Saturday’s conference indicated, the scattered groups of wind energy critics are getting better organized — and more vocal.
More than 20 bills have been filed in the Legislature seeking, to varying degrees, additional restrictions on when, where and how energy companies can build the turbines.
Several bills would enact a moratorium or substantially rewrite the so-called “expedited permitting” process that streamlines regulatory review for projects in areas predetermined to be appropriate for wind energy projects.
Other bills seek to regulate noise from the turbines — a major complaint for some neighbors of existing projects — or to strengthen the ability of opponents to defeat projects based on their visual impacts.
Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, a trade group that represents wind power developers, acknowledged Sunday that 2011 will be a busy legislative session for the industry.
But Payne said he believes it would be wrong for Mainers to turn their backs on an industry that has already brought nearly $1 billion worth of investment into the state, $376 million of which has gone into the pockets of Maine workers or their local employers. This comes at a time when Maine is struggling to attract or retain heavy manufacturing industries.
“[Critics] are looking to completely undo the Wind Energy Act and to send this industry running from the state,” Payne said. “Given the economic challenges we have, I think that is shortsighted.”
The industry’s critics contend, however, that such investment comes at a heavy price both in terms of impacts on the landscape and neighboring property owners.
Some of the biggest applause on Saturday was for Wendy Todd, who along with her husband has traveled throughout the state talking about how the Mars Hill wind project has affected her neighborhood.
Todd and other neighbors say noise, motion and shadow flicker from the turbines — the closest of which is 2,400 feet from her house — disrupt sleep, cause headaches and make some people physically ill as well as drive away wildlife.
“We are tired but we are here and we are not going to grow weary in doing what is good,” Todd told the group.
Mike Pajak, a member of Friends of Maine’s Mountains, said he often hears people dismiss his group as a bunch of “NIMBYs,” standing for “not in my backyard.”
“The mountains of Maine are not in anybody’s backyard,” he said. “They are, in fact, the character of the state of Maine.”
Chris O’Neil, who lobbies for anti-wind groups in Augusta, urged audience members to get in touch with legislators and to show up at meetings. O’Neil said they need to argue their case that the societal costs of large-scale wind power outweigh what he said are small long-term benefits to the economy or the climate.
But Payne said $376 million to Maine workers and companies is no small amount. And unlike power plants that use fossil fuels, wind turbines carry no additional fuel costs once they are erected.
“Every time a turbine is spinning, it is offsetting fossil fuels,” he said.