Some people view imminent wind power development in Somerset County as a way to boost the economic stability of the region. Others decry its perceived ill health effects and detriment to the landscape.
Either way, change is looming.
Conceivably, between $1 billion and $2 billion worth of wind energy projects will be developed in Somerset County within the next three years, according to Jim Batey, executive director of the Somerset Economic Development Corp.
“That’s a significant amount of investment, no matter how you look at it, for a poor rural county,” he said.
The influx would represent an estimated tax revenue increase of about $9 million per year in the unorganized territories alone, he said, which would likely go toward economic development projects and tax relief, in addition to the developers.
Though still in the planning stages, the potential wind energy projects within a 1,200-square-mile area in central Somerset County, spilling over into Piscataquis County, would place as many as 300 turbines over the next three years in at least 10 towns, townships and plantations.
Driving from one corner of the area, in Lexington, to the other, in Blanchard Township, would take an hour and a half. One of the biggest wind farms in the world, in Roscoe, Texas, covers 100,000 acres and has about 630 turbines.
FOUR PROJECTS PROPOSED
The latest potential wind project for the area is backed by Iberdrola Renewables, a Spain-based company that owns Central Maine Power and says it’s the world’s top wind power producer.
Atlantic Wind LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Iberdrola, was granted a permit Oct. 19 to build two temporary meteorological towers in Concord Township and one in Lexington Township to measure the wind, said Marcia Spencer-Famous, senior planner at the Land Use Regulation Commission.
Although it will take at least a year until the company gathers enough wind data, building a testing tower is one of the first steps toward a wind farm.
Under a separate proposal by Bingham Wind Power LLC, backed by developer First Wind, based in Boston, about 52 turbines would be placed in the eastern corner of Bingham, including on Johnson Mountain, and then stretch northeast through Mayfield and Blanchard townships. The company intends to submit its permit applications in the spring.
In the third project, which would join Maine-based Cianbro Corp. and Maine Windpower LLC as the developer, turbines would be placed in northern Moscow, near the former radar station, and would stretch over the town line into Caratunk. That project is still in the planning stages, with testing poles currently measuring the amount of wind.
The fourth proposed project, by Highland Wind LLC, would have Brunswick-based developer Independence Wind — of which independent former Gov. Angus King is a principal — erect 48 turbines on mountains and ridges in Highland and Pleasant Ridge plantations. Review of the company’s permit was suspended in April until the developer can demonstrate ownership of the property, according to the land use commission’s files.
LOCAL CONTROL QUESTIONED
Before and during the permitting process, developers’ representatives hold hearings to provide the public with information about plans and explain how residents can capture future increases in property value for economic development projects.
“We want to make sure we’re good neighbors during the development and operation of the project,” said Alec Jarvis, with First Wind, at a recent informational meeting in Skowhegan.
But how much control do residents have over whether a wind project goes in their backyard? Not much, according to David Corrigan, a Registered Maine Guide who runs Fletcher Mountain Outfitters in Concord Township and believes his business will suffer if wind power comes to his community.
“When it really comes down to it, the people of Maine have no say,” Corrigan said.
Towns that adopt wind energy facility ordinances have some control, he said, but if they don’t have an ordinance, regulations are handled by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. If the project is in an unorganized territory, LURC is the reviewing agency.
Batey, economic development director, agreed there are few recourses for residents. “I guess if you don’t like the law you have to try to overturn it, or you testify at public hearings,” he said.
LAW SUPPORTS WIND DEVELOPMENT
The law is precisely the issue for those opposing wind developments.
The Wind Energy Act of 2008, L.D. 2283, was designed to fast-forward the permitting process.
Before, a developer had to petition to change an area’s zoning before it could continue with the wind power development process, Catherine Carroll, LURC director, said. The wind energy act eliminated that first step.
The act also lowered the bar for standards surrounding turbines’ affect on scenic landscapes.
“The law acknowledges that these (turbines) are visible, and it will have an adverse impact, but is it unreasonable?” Carroll said. Before, the developer had to meet the stricter qualification of not causing “undue adverse impact.”
The regulatory commission is sensitive to potential impacts on important natural resources, such as national and state parks, historic areas and preserves, lakes and trails. Deciding how a project harms the scenery is, however, difficult.
“It really comes down to a judgment. There’s not a science behind it,” Carroll said.
The commission’s board members, who have issued permits for three wind energy projects and anticipate issuing a fourth soon, also are challenged with measuring the perceived effects of turbine noise and shadow flicker.
“They’re not doctors, so they don’t know,” Carroll said. Decibel levels are regulated, “but whether or not that’s still intolerable, the jury’s still out.”
One goal of the wind energy act is to generate 3,000 megawatts of wind energy capacity by 2020. It will take more than 1,000 turbines to create that.