Maine residents overwhelmingly support wind power development, chiefly because it cuts dependence on fossil fuels and creates jobs, according to the first survey released by the industry.

In a statewide telephone poll of 500 registered voters, 88 percent supported wind power in Maine. Calls to residents in seven rural “rim” counties, from Aroostook to Oxford, where most wind power projects are built or planned, showed 83 percent in support.

The survey was done by Portland-based Pan Atlantic SMS Group for the Maine Renewable Energy Association, a trade group whose members include wind power developers and construction companies. The group said it commissioned the poll to learn whether recent, critical media coverage of land-based wind power was translating into negative public opinion.

“We saw an uptick in coverage of opponents and wanted to know if there was something developers needed to be aware of,” said Jeremy Payne, the association’s executive director.

The poll is the first in Maine to ask multiple questions specifically on wind power. Its findings are in line with high levels of support shown in surveys by Critical Insights earlier this year and last fall.

The association’s poll was done in April and May, coinciding with non-stop news about the runaway oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The wind power industry may have benefited from daily images of environmental disaster, Payne acknowledges. Of 12 statements read in the survey, the view that wind energy will reduce dependence on fossil fuels was cited as the top reason by supporters.

That point edged out a statement about creating 2,000 jobs in Maine, which Payne considers surprising in hard economic times.

“The oil spill certainly shines a bright light on the impact fossil fuels can have on the environment,” he said.

But critics who are fighting to keep hundreds of turbines from being built along the state’s mountain ridges say the fossil-fuel claims downplay, among other things, the continued need for oil and natural gas to generate power in the region when the wind isn’t blowing.

Also, opponents find the timing of the poll to be more than a coincidence.

Gathering opinions when people are sensitized to the oil spill “makes the public vulnerable to hyped solutions and to the wind industry propaganda,” said Dr. Monique Aniel, a spokeswoman for the Citizens’ Task Force on Wind Power.

Lawmakers and the outgoing administration of Gov. John Baldacci have set an ambitious goal of adding 3,000 megawatts of land-based wind power capacity by 2020. Opponents continue to challenge the widespread development of wind power, raising concerns that include the visual impact and nearby residents’ complaints about low-frequency noise.

But those concerns aren’t widely shared, according to the poll’s findings. Nearly three-quarters of the respondents said they would support wind projects near where they live or visit frequently. Support was nearly as high in the rim counties.

Companies have invested $750 million in wind energy projects in Maine. But Payne said the industry hasn’t done a good job of conveying the economic benefits of wind power.

One finding of the poll is that three-quarters of residents agree that wind energy projects will bring more tax revenue to the state and host communities.

The industry will share its findings with policymakers in Augusta, and with candidates in November’s elections.

One survey question asked about respondents’ likelihood of voting for a legislative candidate who supports wind power; 59 percent said they would be more likely to vote for that person.

One way to interpret the findings is that people understand all energy sources have impacts, but wind power is less damaging, said Jack Parker, president and chief executive officer of the Reed & Reed construction firm in Woolwich.

Reed & Reed, which helped build most of the state’s wind farms, is circulating a video it produced about the economic benefits of projects near Danforth and Stratton. It’s called “Catching the Wind: A Tale of Two Towns.”

Together, the poll and the video are meant to show that there’s strong support for wind power in Maine.

“People running for office need to know that,” Parker said.

 

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: tturkel@pressherald.com