Maine wind energy advocates unveil study touting industry’s benefits

Posted May 05, 2015, at 2:49 p.m.
Last modified May 05, 2015, at 6:49 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Proponents of Maine’s wind-power industry Tuesday touted a new study that reportedly shows positive impacts on health and the environment from the industry’s growth in the Pine Tree State.

“This study confirms what we have long known, but have never seen quantified in this level of detail,” Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, said.

Payne said the study, completed by the New Hampshire-based Sustainable Energy Advantage, analyzed the output of Maine’s entire wind turbine fleet.

Among other things, the study found carbon dioxide emissions in 2013 decreased by 490,000 tons because of wind-generated power from Maine. According to Payne, that’s the equivalent to the pollution from 94,000 Maine automobiles.

The study also determined wind power reduced the sulfur oxide emissions, typically associated with fossil-fuel fired energy plants, by 201 tons and nitrogen oxide emissions by 123 tons.

Sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide are considered significant contributors to acid rain and the acidification of lakes, rivers and oceans, Payne said. Both pollutants are also blamed for smog and unhealthy air conditions that complicate respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, he said.

“It is clear to us that Maine’s wind farms are really helping to protect public health, particularly our vulnerable populations of the elderly, the young and those with respiratory illnesses, like asthma,” Ed Miller, senior vice president for public policy of the American Lung Association of the Northeast, said.

Other backers of the wind industry, including Glen Brand, director of the Sierra Club Maine Chapter, also noted the importance of the study.

“By detailing the carbon and air pollution reductions from Maine’s wind power resources, this report provides further evidence of the strong environmental and health benefits of clean wind energy for Maine families,” Brand said.

The announcement of the study came just two hours ahead of a hearing on a bill, LD 1329, before the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, that seeks to dramatically rewrite Maine laws aimed at helping wind energy grow in a way that opponents of wind development say would better factor in the rights of Mainers who own property near wind farms.

Among other things, the bill would reduce the state’s overall goal for wind energy production.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick, also requires grid-scale wind energy developers to file decommissioning plans and to provide a performance bond to guarantee the funding for decommissioning when a project no longer is producing power.

The measure also requires developers to put in writing a community benefits package for host communities that is secured with a lien on the wind developer’s property.

The bill, called An Act to Maximize the Benefits of Renewable Energy in Maine, was criticized by renewable energy advocates in testimony Tuesday, including the Sierra Club of Maine.

“Despite its misleading and rather Orwellian title, LD 1329 is clearly designed to minimize, if not halt completely, the use of clean renewable wind and solar power in Maine,” the group said in a news release. “The bill appears to be rooted in an irrational prejudice against wind power in particular, and it is not based on the state’s experience, proven success and sound science.”

O’Connor told the committee she sponsored the bill for the advocacy group, Friends of Maine’s Mountains, which staunchly has opposed the industry in Maine.

She said her bill would remove from the state’s law some “inaccurate and misguided language that gave favor to wind energy.”

O’Connor said the goals set down in the 2008 of 2,000 megawatts of installed wind energy in Maine by 2020 were unrealistic and should be removed from state law.

“If the government must choose winners and losers, it must also make adjustments when the predicted winners turn out to be losers,” O’Connor said.

She said large-scale wind developers had deep pockets and easily can run over local people who may be in opposition to their projects.

“Wind developers spending a half a billion dollars will out lawyer and out expert small groups of local volunteers, and we have seen it happen,” O’Connor said.

Others supporting O’Connor’s bill said the 2008 law, which became one of the legacy policies of former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, was rammed through the legislative process with little public feedback.

Christopher O’Neil, president of Friends of Maine Mountains, said many of the reasons the Maine Department of Environmental Protection should reject development permits became invalid under the 2008 law.

“If somebody wants to make the point that this wind project won’t get us off from oil, it won’t reduce emissions and it won’t benefit ratepayers those are deemed impertinent because of that section of statute that really has to go,” O’Neil said. “It’s just sales talk in statute and that’s not right.”

But those who support the 2008 law and O’Connor’s effort to repeal it included a number of construction workers, who said they’ve been gainfully employed in the wind sector in Maine for years now.

William Purington II of Farmingdale and an employee with Maine Drilling and Blasting said the industry allowed him to be gainfully employed in his home state.

A University of Maine at Orono graduate, Purington said he knew many of his classmates who were now working in the sector. He said he paid off his college expenses working in the wind industry sector.

“A lot of my fellow employees at Maine Drilling and Blasting, we pay our mortgages, our rents, our taxes and for our luxury items to be able to enjoy the natural resources of the state of Maine. We do this through the work we get from the wind farms.”

Purington said he was thankful for the industry and opportunities it has afforded him and others in Maine.

Some have criticized the impact of wind farms on the mountain landscapes of Maine, but Purington, who studied mechanical engineering, offered a different view when asked by a committee member about his view of the machines.

“I think they are an engineering feat of beauty,” Purington said. “They’re magnificent works of art that human hands have built.”

Also offering surprising testimony against the bill was Patrick Woodcock, the director of Gov. Paul LePage’s Energy Office.

Woodcock noted LePage is an “energy agnostic” and has been outspoken about providing government subsidies or protections for wind energy that don’t exist for others in the energy sector.

But the LePage administration was opposed to provisions in O’Connor’s bill that would require the Public Utilities Commission to only offer long-term contracts to those who generate so-called “firm” power.

Woodcock said he was reading that to mean the PUC could not offer a long-term contract to any company that produced energy on an intermittent basis but that language also would pertain to hydropower in Maine.

Others had some more basic reasons for opposing O’Connor’s bill.

“It doesn’t take long to read from a layman’s view. I mean, you don’t even need to be a lawyer to see all that’s going on with (O’Connor’s bill),” Peter Marcotte of Lewiston, who also works for Maine Drilling and Blasting, said. “It really just dismantles (the wind industry).”

O’ Connor’s bill will face a future work session before the committee likely later this month.

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