Wind farm opponents blast Maine Audubon report, saying environmental group too ‘chummy’ with developers

An aerial photo, taken March 18, 2012 of First Wind's 60 megawatt, 200 wind turbine Rollins Wind project, eight miles east of Lincoln, Maine.
Courtesy of R.W. Estela
An aerial photo, taken March 18, 2012 of First Wind's 60 megawatt, 200 wind turbine Rollins Wind project, eight miles east of Lincoln, Maine.
Posted Dec. 12, 2013, at 1:30 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 12, 2013, at 3:29 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The state’s most prominent wind energy development opponents offered a sharp rebuke Thursday to a Maine Audubon report on the subject, arguing the environmental group is too cozy with its wind developer donors and misled the public by saying commercial wind can coexist with wildlife.

The group Friends of Maine Mountains challenged the week-old Maine Audubon study in a lengthy response issued Wednesday night, calling for the Falmouth-based organization to retract the report and address concerns that corporate donors like First Wind and Patriot Renewables — both prominent commercial wind developers in the region — exerted improper influence over its findings.

Maine Audubon on Thursday defended its transparency and the report, which found that out of 1.1 million acres in the state where there’s enough wind potential to justify turbines, 933,000 acres don’t overlap with identified sensitive wildlife habitat.

The study concluded that, based on the information it had, there is ample room in Maine for enough land-based wind power development to reach the state’s goal of 3,000 megawatts of capacity by 2030 — an effort that would require the construction of at least 600 more wind turbines.

Friends of Maine Mountains criticized that finding, pointing out that the study does not include information about bird and bat migrations, which the group argued would reduce the amount of area where wind turbines could be sited significantly, if not eliminate wind as a wildlife-friendly option completely.

“We took exception to that [omission] right up front,” Richard McDonald, a Friends of Maine Mountains board member, told the Bangor Daily News. “You can’t put Cuisinarts up in the air without it hurting birds and bats. This study has serious flaws.”

The opposition group also suggested they’re suspicious that what could be considered a report beneficial to developers — hoping to put up some of those 600 additional windmills — was written in part because First Wind, Patriot Renewables and attorneys and supporters of those firms can be found among Maine Audubon’s corporate partners.

“They’ve basically given wind developers a free pass [with the report findings],” McDonald said. “Why that is, we don’t know. We speculate it’s because they’ve gotten chummy with the wind developers, and that’s possibly influencing their report and misleading the people of Maine.”

First Wind is listed as an Eagle Donor, having given the organization $10,000 or more in 2013, while Patriot Renewables is an Owl Donor, for a gift of $1,000. Many Maine media outlets, including the Bangor Daily News, are also Maine Audubon donors.

Michelle Smith, spokeswoman for Maine Audubon, said the organization is “very clear about” its “corporate gift acceptance policy.”

“We never endorse a company, and none of our donors ever receive any goods or services in exchange for their gifts,” Smith said Thursday. “Our policy positions are never, ever, influenced by that.”

The latest volleys in the debate over wind power in Maine came the same day as a top pro-wind group released poll numbers it said showed wind power enjoying popular support in the state. The Wind for ME coalition commissioned a late-summer survey of 604 Maine voters, and on Thursday announced results indicating 87 percent of respondents across all political persuasions considered wind “the type of zero emission, clean and renewable energy source that should be encouraged in Maine.”

Smith acknowledged that the Maine Audubon report did not include the bird and bat migratory patterns, but she said statewide information about migrations has not been compiled. She added that her organization has always been clear about what information the study did and did not factor into its findings.

Smith said her group believes the report — overlaying maps of known sensitive wildlife habitat with those showing wind power availability — was a valuable addition to the larger body of knowledge about wind energy’s prospects in Maine. The study includes a map showing where wind development would encroach upon sensitive habitat along the state’s coast and northern and western mountains.

She said Maine Audubon continues to advocate for site-by-site evaluations of wind development proposals and would not endorse specific projects found to be detrimental to sensitive or protected wildlife species, regardless of where those projects fell on the study’s map.

“We acknowledge and are up front that this is just one piece of the puzzle,” Smith said. “It’s really unfortunate that Friends of Maine Mountains missed one of the key points of the report, which is that based on the findings of this report, we’re recommending not to site turbines in the mountains because of the overlap with wildlife resources in those areas, which is [a finding] really in line with their position.”

But Friends of Maine Mountains maintained that issuing a report saying commercial wind power and wildlife can coexist anywhere in Maine — without more complete information — sends the wrong message to the public.

In a statement distributed by the Friends group, University of Maine ecology professor Rebecca Holberton echoed that criticism.

“It is troubling that — although the report is replete with disclaimers and acknowledged weakness by the authors themselves regarding the types of information that went into the work and the limitations of any conclusions stemming from it — it has been confidently presented to the public as a tool that would reliably serve as guidelines for siting land-based wind energy development,” Holberton said, in part, adding that the report is, “at best, a catalyst for improving how we approach spatial mapping of wildlife risk, and at worst, a poorly-developed model to be misused by those looking for an open endorsement for wind energy development in the state without being made to consider the true viability of alternative energy sources.”

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