The developer of a controversial wind farm proposed for Somerset County has redesigned the project to benefit residents and reduce visual impacts on the Appalachian Trail and the Bigelow Preserve.

Independence Wind, the primary developer of the Highland Wind power project, announced the changes Tuesday as it filed a revised application with the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission.

Independence Wind is led by former Gov. Angus King and Rob Gardiner, a former president of Maine Public Broadcasting Corp. They said they hope the project will create a national model for how wind power could cut dependence on imported oil.

They have agreed to give households in Highland Plantation $6,000 “fossil fuel reduction” grants to take steps to cut their energy costs, including the installation of electric thermal storage heaters.

A resident of the area who is a leading critic of the project is not impressed by the concessions. Jonathan Carter, who lives in Lexington Township, said the project remains ill-conceived and will be opposed by anti-wind and forest preservation groups.

Highland Wind would have 39 turbines and produce enough electricity for 44,000 homes, according to the company. The $210 million project would create 300 construction-related jobs and pay more than $500,000 a year in taxes.

But the project has drawn opposition from Friends of the Highland Mountains, a citizens group that is fighting large-scale wind projects in western Maine. The group has raised concerns that include noise from the turbines and the sight of the tall, lighted towers along remote ridges.

The revised application cuts the number of turbines from 48 to 39, removing those closest to the Appalachian Trail and the Bigelow Preserve. That would keep all turbines at least eight miles from the high peaks of Bigelow Mountain and would reduce road construction by 30 percent.

“This was not an easy decision,” Gardiner said, “because removing these … turbines eliminates almost 25 percent of the estimated energy production from the project and is a significant financial concession. But we felt that this is the right compromise between the pressing need to build good projects which substitute renewable power for fossil fuels, and the concerns of those who believed the original project would harm the recreational experience on the trail and at Bigelow.”

The developers also are giving the state a permanent easement prohibiting wind power development on the ridge where the removed turbines were planned. They also are giving more than $750,000 for land conservation in the project area as part of the “tangible benefits” package required under Maine’s wind power law.

To reduce oil use, households will have the option of installing heaters distributed by Thermal Energy Storage of Maine. The heaters use lower-cost, off-peak electricity to heat dense ceramic bricks that are stored in specially insulated cabinets. 

As part of the demonstration project, Highland Wind will supply the electricity to Highland residents at a discounted cost that will be equivalent to about $1.15 per gallon of oil, well below the current $3-per-gallon price in the area. A typical household would reduce its oil use by 600 gallons each year, the company estimates.

“We’re really excited about this idea,” King said. “Maine is one of the most oil-dependent states in the country, and a huge portion of this oil is used to heat homes. We want to demonstrate here that we can replace that oil — not a drop of which comes from within Maine — with locally produced wind power which can be supplied at a long-term, predictable price.”

In addition, Highland Wind is donating a larger thermal heating unit to the University of Maine’s Offshore Wind Lab.

Carter said the thermal storage option would have very little effect in Highland Plantation, which has about two dozen homes, almost all of them heated with wood.

Large-scale wind power doesn’t make economic sense without generous government subsidies, Carter said, and the concessions simply are aimed at winning public support and approval from LURC.

“This is just Angus and Rob feeding at the trough of the federal government’s largesse,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

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