As wind power projects proliferate in Maine and opposition increases to the point of civil disobedience, a tipping point is approached. Despite criticism about changes to the landscape, access roads to mountain tops, tax breaks and production that remains below capacity, wind power is on its way to becoming a fixture in Maine’s energy portfolio.
The question that arises is whether wind power will still be, 20 years from now, a part of the energy mix. And if so, will it assume a significant portion of electricity production? Since wind power is renewable, does not pollute and can be expanded exponentially across the state and in the Gulf of Maine, it has enormous potential for the future.
But so did other energy projects.
What would Maine’s energy horizon look like if some of those projects had come to fruition? And were the big projects that were built unqualified successes? It’s a mixed record.
Among the big energy proposals that were not developed are the Dickey-Lincoln hydropower project; the Big A dam planned for the West Branch of the Penobscot River; a nuclear power plant, coal-fired plant and oil refinery for Sears Island; and the tidal project planned for Passamaquoddy Bay.
Among those that were developed are the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant in Wiscasset, the Wyman Lake and Flagstaff Lake impoundments and hydrodams and the Sable Island natural gas line and the electricity generating plants it powers.
The Dickey-Lincoln dam project, debated from the late-1960s through the late-1970s, would have cost an estimated $325 million to construct in 1975 and would have produced 830 megawatts of electricity at full capacity and 1.2 billion kilowatt hours annually. Had the two huge dams been constructed on the St. John River, 88,000 acres of impoundment would have been created. Proponents planned a recreational component for the new lake as well as the electricity.
Had it been built, the changes wrought on the economy, culture and landscape of northern Aroostook County would be immeasurable. But if it existed today, producing electricity year-in, year-out, what would the greater Maine economy look like? Is it possible Maine would be in better shape?
The dam that created Wyman Lake still produces electricity, yet Flagstaff Lake, created as a back-up source for the Wyman station, never was needed.
And the Maine Yankee nuclear plant, while providing a substantial amount of electricity for a time, ended up being tremendously costly to maintain and finally close. Nuclear waste is stored there today.
Perhaps the most dramatic project that was not built was a salt water impoundment in Passamaquoddy Bay. The tidal power project had the support of none other than then-President Franklin Roosevelt, yet it was not completed. All these years later, tidal power again is being considered for the region.
Each electricity generation proposal was complex and came with its own questions of investment vs. return, environmental degradation vs. necessary resource development, local loss vs. greater public gain. But if they had been developed, 20 years later these projects would have been accepted as part of the landscape.
The natural world has a tremendous capacity to adapt to change. It’s possible that 20 years from now, wind turbines will be as accepted as transmission lines and cell phone towers are today.