Maine is a national leader in the development of alternative sources of energy, including upland wind power, offshore wind and even tidal generation.
That leadership is creating important economic opportunities for hundreds of businesses around the state that have developed expertise in a growing industry that has helped to create hundreds of jobs and attracted more than $1 billion worth of investment capital.
Unfortunately, a recent decision by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection puts that leadership position at risk and threatens to undermine Maine’s attractiveness for investors.
A forward-thinking Maine Legislature adopted important laws that have set strict guidelines for the siting of renewable energy projects, particularly wind projects, and also created a system that allows for a streamlined review and predictable process.
In the fall, the DEP denied a permit for the construction of a 14-turbine, 42-megawatt wind project in Penobscot County.
My company Reed & Reed has grown into an industry leader in the construction of wind power projects in the Northeast. In addition to services such as design, construction and quality control, we also help wind developers prepare detailed budgets and schedules for the design and construction phases of their projects. The goal is to help developers predict the costs they will incur and also help them to understand the impact that changes can have on costs.
While no one can prepare for every contingency, a predictable and stable regulatory environment is critical, especially when there are millions of dollars on the line.
In denying the project permit for Passadumkeag Windpark LLC, the DEP created significant uncertainty in the wind power industry. The ruling is contrary to evidence in the official record of the case, and it relied upon an ad hoc visual impact standard that is inconsistent with state law.
With millions of dollars on the line, such a decision creates a disincentive for prospective developers to consider sites in Maine. Without a predictable standard of review, the risk increases significantly for developers and investors in a broad range of industries.
When DEP staff recommended to the Board of Environmental Protection that it deny the appeal, it recognized the error of applying an inappropriate standard but then counter-intuitively recommended the project still be denied.
When the Maine Legislature unanimously passed the Wind Energy Act, the intent was clear: Lawmakers set standards by which future wind projects should be judged and established areas within the state in which approval could be expedited.
The goal was to add protections to sensitive areas while also identifying areas that have the potential to be appropriate for development.
Passadumkeag Mountain is just such a place. The mountain is already developed, with two radio towers and clear evidence of a working forest, including clear cuts and logging roads.
In addition, Saponac Pond, which was the basis for DEP’s decision, is neither pristine nor undeveloped. There are dozens of camps and a paved road along its shore. Despite easy access, the pond receives little traffic and is sparsely used.
While there will always be those opposed to any new project, Maine set clear rules so the individual interests of competing stakeholders could be balanced. In this case, the DEP decision was based on a standard that contradicts state law and puts that carefully crafted balance at risk.
The BEP is scheduled to hear an appeal of the denial on March 21. It’s my hope that this trusted board will conduct a careful and complete review of the evidence in this case. If it does, I believe it will determine that the DEP has made an error.
Developers of all types need to know that they can count on the state of Maine to treat every application fairly and apply the rules consistently. The DEP’s denial sends a much different message that could threaten the future of industry in our state. The BEP has a chance to set things straight.
Jackson A. Parker is the president and CEO of Reed & Reed, a general contractor in Maine that has worked extensively on wind development projects.