AUGUSTA, Maine — People who live near wind farms and other opponents of expedited permitting for wind energy projects packed a legislative hearing room Thursday to testify in favor of three bills that aim to change parts of the Wind Energy Act of 2008.
The act, which won unanimous support from the 123rd Legislature amid aggressive advocacy from then-Gov. John Baldacci’s administration, helped developers fast-track wind energy projects that placed turbines on mountains in rural Maine, particularly the Unorganized Territory. But since 2008, people who own property near the turbines, others who question the economic benefits of wind energy, those who believe the act gives unfair advantage to wind developers and Mainers with concerns about environmental harm have sought to roll back what they characterize as “special rights” the 2008 act awarded to the wind industry.
Public hearings on the three bills stretched almost four hours Thursday as proponents urged the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee to support bills that they said would level the playing field, not drive wind energy out of Maine.
Opponents, including Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, argued that the 2008 law simply created a mechanism to provide wind energy developers with the same permitting and appeal process as other large energy projects under Public Utilities Commission jurisdiction.
Payne testified that the Wind Energy Act of 2008 was created as a recognition that the state’s existing regulatory framework wasn’t working for wind energy developments. He also told the committee that a logical extension of watering down the act would be to make it much harder to develop wind as an alternative energy option in Maine.
“This will push us back to the original regulatory framework,” which proved costly and cumbersome, he said.
Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, who sponsored one of the bills, LD 274, testified that her intent is “to return equal rights” to people who oppose wind energy projects. The bill proposes to remove exclusive jurisdiction over appeals of final action by the Board of Environmental Protection or the commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection from the Maine Law Court and allow aggrieved parties to file appeals in Superior Court.
Among those who testified in favor of Valentino’s bill was Mark Bergeron on behalf of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and Gov. Paul LePage’s administration.
A second bill, LD 385, sponsored by Rep. Roberta Beavers, D-South Berwick, proposes to expand opportunities for public hearings and to mandate that wind energy permits require “best practical mitigation to reduce impacts on scenic, wildlife and other resources.”
The third bill, LD 616, sponsored by Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-Embden, would remove Carrying Place Township, Concord Township, Highland Plantation, Lexington Township and Pleasant Ridge Plantation from the expedited permitting area for wind energy developments. Residents of those plantations and townships delivered more than an hour of impassioned testimony in favor of Dunphy’s bill.
John Burbank, speaking on behalf of his mother, Victoria Burbank of Lexington Township, said passing LD 616 would return to residents “a voice in the future development of this community,” in which Victoria Burbank’s roots stretch four generations.
Payne and Ben Gilman of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce argued that the existing regulatory framework provides consistency and stability for developers considering wind energy project in Maine.
But Chris O’Neil of Friends of Maine Mountains closed testimony by urging committee members to balance “developers’ expectation of stability versus residents’ expectation of stability.”
Testifying neither for nor against LD 616, Patrick Woodcock, director of the Governor’s Energy Office, urged legislators not to shy away from trying to improve the 2008 Wind Energy Act. He reiterated LePage’s intent to streamline energy permitting processes in Maine, but in a way that does not favor one industry over another, which he said the current law does.
Saying that “we have learned a lot” since 2008 and that the Wind Energy Act “is not perfect,” Woodcock told the committee he would share suggestions during a future work session on the bills.
A date for work sessions on the three bills has yet to be announced.