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COLUMBIA FALLS, Maine — The Passamaquoddy Tribe of Indian Township and Pleasant Point has partnered with a Midwest energy firm to launch a $120 million wind farm in Washington County. The developers estimate the project will create 50-100 jobs during the construction phase and 15-20 permanent positions once the farm is built, with more jobs anticipated from spinoff development in the future.
The farm would be located in Unorganized Territory at a decommissioned U.S. Air Force radar site nearly ten miles north of Columbia Falls amid a web of dirt roads, blueberry barrens and cranberry bogs.
The tribe already owns 1,060 acres of blueberry barrens adjacent to the 1,000 acres that the U.S. General Services Administration is offering for sale. Per U.S. law, the tribe will get partial preference on the acquisition, John Richardson, founder of Native Power LLC, said this week.
“This project could be transformative for Washington County,” said Richardson, who has been hired to advise the Passamaquoddies on the project. “It will allow the tribe to diversify its economy and allow it to look even further, at other energies such as biomass.”
Sale of the land to the tribe would avoid a property auction, similar to one held to dispose of obsolete federal over-the-horizon backscatter radar property in Moscow, Maine, last December. After a two-month online auction, a Portland-based company, Western Maine Realty, purchased 1,500 acres and several large buildings with a high bid of $730,000, according to the U.S. General Services Administration. To date, company representatives have not revealed their plans for the Moscow property.
The Passamaquoddy Tribe has entered into a development agreement with Exergy Development Group headquartered in Boise, Idaho. Together, the tribe and company have formed Peskotmuhkati Wind LLC. Peskotmuhkati is the native word for Passamaquoddy.
Richardson — former commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development and former speaker of the Maine House of Representatives — said the tribe is currently conducting an appraisal of the property to determine how much to offer for it. But he added that the group expects to complete the purchase and finalize plans for the wind farm by the end of this year.
He confirmed Thursday that the tribe is currently pursuing additional financial partners, but that “Exergy has sufficient access to capital to make this project a success.”
Richardson said the tribe plans on erecting between 18 and 50 turbines depending on the results of an ongoing environmental study. The Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force both conducted their own environmental studies when the property was decommissioned, and Richardson said there were no “fatal flaws” indicated.
He said Peskotmuhkati Wind LLC hoped to generate between 36 and 72 megawatts of electricity. According to the American Wind Energy Association, one megawatt of wind-generated electricity can power 240-300 households per year.
Richardson said the site currently has some underground transmission lines — at least six miles worth — and that a study is under way to determine if those lines have the capacity to serve the wind farm or if new lines would need to be installed.
The biggest complaints from residents near other wind farm sites have been focused on noise and obstruction of views, issues that Richardson said are not present at the remote barren location the Passamaquoddies are considering.
The radar site is 2.2 miles from the nearest full-time resident, Richardson said, and the turbines will not be visible from that home. “The project’s remoteness is definitely an asset,” he said.
Richardson added that because the land already owned by the tribe, as well as the land planned to be purchased, are considered federal trust lands, all regulations for the proposed wind farm will come from federal, not state, agencies.
He said plans are to build and begin operating the wind farm in 2013.
Richardson said that seeing the project succeed was very important to him because of the struggling economy in Washington County. “What is most significant is that because the wind project will be owned by the tribe, the majority of revenues created by the wind farm and other businesses will remain in Washington County,” he said. “This could be a game changer for the county.”
Chief Clayton Cleaves of the Pleasant Point reservation said the tribe will retain 51 percent ownership of the project and will funnel those profits into additional projects in Washington County. “This can be a key economic driver for the Passamaquoddy Tribe,” he said.
“We became interested in this project because it is a first-of-its-kind development of a commercial-scale wind power project that is uniquely owned with Native Americans,” James Carkulis, president and CEO of Exergy said Tuesday. “We have also been highly encouraged by the Department of Energy and the Bureau of Indian Affairs analyses that we are a national model of how to navigate development and financing of renewable energy projects on tribal lands.”
“Both construction and long-term operations and maintenance jobs will be created, and training will be available for both tribal members and others in Washington County,” Passamaquoddy Chief Joseph Socobasin of the Indian Township reservation said this week. Fifty to 100 construction jobs are expected to be created, with 15-20 permanent jobs to be filled once the farm is built.
Richardson said that the ripple effect caused by the energy farm could result in another 50-100 permanent jobs. “There are several opportunities for tribal enterprises that will arise from the completion of this wind project, including energy-dependent developments that could be co-located with the wind farm, such as a data center that could take advantage of the existing buildings on the radar site,” Richardson said.
An international charity, Trans Atlantic Orthopedic Foundation Corporation, which is based in New York City, has applied to the GSA for a 50-acre parcel on the same property to create a homeless shelter. Richardson said this application to Housing and Urban Development is routine and that homeless shelters trump tribal requests in the bidding process. But he added that if Trans Atlantic is awarded the acreage, which would be provided free by the federal government, it would not be a deal breaker for the tribe’s wind farm plans.
“This is an extremely remote area,” Richardson said. “Fifty acres seems like a lot of space, but our project could accommodate that and it would not interfere with our plans.”
Telephone calls and an email request for information were not returned by Trans Atlantic Orthopedic Foundation Corporation on Thursday. According to the company’s website, it provides “humanitarian assistance for individuals addressing musculoskeletal conditions around the world” and “resources to persons needing mobility devices, wound care, and repair of injuries from violence and accident-induced trauma.” Nowhere on the charity’s website does it indicate that it currently operates any homeless shelters anywhere in the U.S.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ office staff confirmed Thursday that they are looking into the request by Trans Atlantic since the location is miles from the nearest paved road and far from other services.
“Our office has some grave concerns about this,” Collins’ spokesman Carol Woodcock said Thursday, indicating that the proposal does not pass the straight-face test for a shelter location.
Woodcock said the process under which Trans Atlantic filed its proposal is the federal Title 5 McKinney Act, which is vague and doesn’t seem to address concerns that the land could be accepted free of charge and then sold.
Richardson said, however, that the tribe is not concerned about Trans Atlantic’s plans affecting the wind farm project, even though the homeless shelter location seems suspect.
“You’d have to parachute every homeless person in New England into those barrens to make the project viable,” he said. Richardson said that as the process unfolds, Trans Atlantic will have to prove financial viability and there is a finite time limit during which their project must be established or the company could lose the land.
“Clearly Washington County’s homeless issues need to be addressed but I think some sort of assessment of need should be accomplished first,” he said.
Richardson said the Passamaquoddy partnership with Exergy was vital to the wind farm project. Not only is the company an experienced renewable energy developer, he said, but it has a social and environmental ethic that the Passamaquoddy Tribe found compatible. “Exergy Development Group is a multifaceted renewable energy company entrenched in wind, solar, bio-energy, geothermal and hydro,” he said. “Their work is focused on increasing efficiencies in the renewable energy industry. They build projects that are socially beneficial, environmentally responsible and enhance economic viability in communities.”
“An additional benefit to the community shall be derived from the refurbishment and reuse of the radar site that has been vacant for ten years,” he said.