Our three Penobscot County Commissioners made an astute decision today when they decided to defer action on whether to grant an advance tax increment financing deal to the wind corporation that wants to build the Passadumkeag wind park in the Grand Falls area.
If the TIF had been granted, that news would have been used by the developer to claim in the application process before the Maine Department of Environmental Protection that it has substantial local support when, in fact, several landowners in the affected region raised questions and objections.
The danger of forest fires caused by burning wind towers was one of the unanswered questions that bothered the commissioners. Both the DEP and the Land Use Regulation Commission admitted early last year that they had approved all of Maine’s wind farms without any regard to the possibility of forest fires. They had not even contacted the state fire marshal for his input. Soon after, the DEP did make a perfunctory inquiry but received only a sketchy response.
There have been several hundred turbine fires in the United States and abroad. Some of those fires sent flaming parts up to a half mile from the tower sites. The forest fires that turbines have caused in Europe, California and elsewhere occurred mostly on turbines less than 200 feet tall and located in nonmountainous areas. Lightning strikes are one major cause of such fires.
In Maine, we now have 470 foot towers located high up on remote, forested mountain tops. The higher the elevation and the taller the tower, the greater the odds a turbine will be hit by lightning. A 470-foot tower, of course, is one-and-a-half times taller than the length of a football field, goal post to goal post. Firefighters everywhere have said when a turbine burns, all that they can do is watch and allow them to burn themselves out.
When Australia lost 200,000 acres of forest lands in a national park to a fire caused by a wind farm, it passed a law that prevents locating wind turbines near forests and fields.
There also are substantial internal causes of turbine fires. When wind blows more than 50 miles per hour, brakes must be applied harshly and swiftly, and that action causes friction in the nacelle. Each nacelle is surrounded by about 200 gallons of hot oil. Oil leaks are common. When a turbine catches fire, the blades, whirling at 100 miles per hour, cause flaming pieces of the nacelle to fly into the air, often coming into contact with oil-soaked or tinder-dry vegetation.
Unlike Maine, in Europe they take the forest fire danger very seriously. Three years ago, the Confederation of Fire Protection Associations in Europe recommended such measures as state experts sending lubricants to laboratories at two- to five-year intervals to ensure they have not weakened. Weakened oil contributes to the friction that causes internal fires. They also have state inspectors to ensure that special oil leakage prevention measures are in place and that all maintenance procedures have been followed to the letter. I could not find a single state regulation in Maine concerned with a single aspect of wind turbine operations.
The people of Penobscot County were well served by their commissioners when they deferred action on the TIF while allowing the DEP to deal with the important forest and turbine fire questions.
Clyde MacDonald is a resident of Hampden.