Bingham wind energy project wins preliminary approval from Maine environmental regulators

Posted Aug. 28, 2014, at 2:15 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 28, 2014, at 4:57 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — State regulators are prepared to give final approval for a 62-turbine wind farm in Bingham, which would be the largest so far approved in the state.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection on Wednesday issued a draft order approving the project, proposed by a subsidiary of the Boston-based firm First Wind. That order will be subject to public comment and further review before final approval can be granted for the proposed $398 million project by Blue Sky West LLC and Blue Sky West II LLC.

The 186-megawatt project is another focal point for wind industry supporters and opponents. Supporters say it will bring economic development and reliability to the region’s power grid; opponents of the project challenge the amount the DEP has asked First Wind to provide to support decommissioning the project.

Chris O’Neil, president of the anti-wind industry group Friends of Maine Mountains, said that his group plans to oppose its land-use permit but that he expects the project will ultimately gain approval.

“I won’t say that I’m overly optimistic that DEP is going to do anything different than what’s in the draft,” O’Neil said. “But we’re going to take one shot at pointing out some weaknesses in pointing out the applicant’s materials.”

Critics at local meetings about the project have echoed concerns related to wind farms elsewhere, including noise and wildlife impacts.

Paul Williamson, executive director of the Maine Ocean and Wind Industry Initiative, said the company’s $400 million investment will have broader economic benefits as local contractors pick up skills in wind power development that can then be exported to other states, bringing that revenue to Maine companies.

“With each project, we get an even larger economic benefit for the state,” Williamson said. “It’s really significant that by allowing the local industry to develop, you end up with a cluster development model that then increases the economic impact in Maine.”

The DEP’s draft proposal said the company proposed financing the project through a combination of equity investment in First Wind Holdings LLC and a line of credit or loan from a financial institution.

A survey Williamson’s group did in 2012 found that for every $1 in revenue from new wind projects, the 49 companies surveyed were able to generate an average of 40 cents in revenue from exporting the expertise they developed to other projects.

The proposed approval for the Bingham project sets out various conditions for the company to meet, including the purchase of 90 acres adjacent to the Cambridge Wildlife Management Area to lessen the impact on deer wintering areas designated by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Approval for the Bingham project would be the latest victory for the wind developer, which won approval for a key financial partnership with the parent of power company Emera Maine in July after a challenge from the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. That court challenge sent the case back to the Maine Public Utilities Commission. The commission’s decision may still be appealed to the state’s Supreme Court by one of the intervenors in that previous case.

Tony Buxton, an attorney with Preti Flaherty, said that the Industrial Energy Consumers Group, which he represents, has not yet decided whether to file an appeal to that PUC decision. Attorneys for the other intervenor, Houlton Water Co., were not available for comment Thursday afternoon.

The wind energy developer said in letters to the DEP in May that the $333 million partnership with Nova Scotia-based Emera could be used to support part of its projects in Oakfield, Hancock and Bingham. The company secured financing for its Oakfield project in May and began construction this summer.

O’Neil said an appeal of the project to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court could throw more questions on the company’s financial assurances to state regulators and that his group is working with a financial consultant to prepare their assessment of First Wind’s finances to the DEP.

In its order, the DEP found the company demonstrated adequate financial capacity to support the project, which the company estimated would cost about $3.3 million to decommission, a figure O’Neil questioned.

He said his group is focused not on beating back some of the wind projects but delaying them.

“If we can slow them down, we consider that victory,” O’Neil said.

If new transmission lines for hydropower from Quebec come online and more capacity for natural gas is added to power plants in the region, O’Neil expects the market demand for wind energy to decline.

For many of its wind projects in Maine, First Wind has already secured long-term power purchasing agreements with southern New England states seeking to fulfill renewable power purchasing goals they are required by law to meet.

First Wind has gotten approval for its Hancock project, planned to have 17 turbines generating up to 51 megawatts of power, but it is fighting denial of another project on Bowers Mountain in Carroll Plantation and Kossuth Township.

The company first requested approval of the Bingham project in May 2013. The proposed wind farm would generate up to 186 megawatts with turbines in three communities: 11 in Bingham, 29 in Mayfield Township and 22 in Kingsbury Plantation.

The company has signed agreements with those towns to provide annual payments for locating the projects there. Those agreements would deliver annual payments of $176,000 to Kingsbury Plantation, $106,000 to Bingham and $20,000 each to the towns of Abbott, Parkman and Moscow.

Public comments on the draft project will be accepted through Sept. 4 and should be sent to Daniel.Courtemanch@maine.gov by email or by phone at 446-1806.

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