Wind-swept task force sets Maine's rules

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Part two of a three-part series on Maine’s law to fast-track wind turbine development. Next: Flaws in the wind power bill are like skating on dull blades.

AUGUSTA — Gov. John Baldacci established the Governor’s Task Force on Wind Power Development by executive order on May 8, 2007, with the expectation it would make Maine a leader in the wind power industry.

Baldacci’s timing was perfect:

• The day before, a CNN story had reported that the price of gas had “hit a new record high, averaging $3.07 for a gallon of self-serve regular in the United States.”

• Climate change was in the news almost daily.

• Developers and environmentalists had just fought a battle in western Maine over construction of a huge wind-power project, ending in defeat for the project.

That battle demonstrated a significant failing in state law: Maine’s tangle of environmental regulations simply didn’t include tools or standards appropriate for considering the placement of 400-foot-plus turbines smack in the middle of some of the state’s wildest lands.

There were different rules at different agencies for different parts of the state, projects took years to review, and the outcome of those reviews was far from predictable.

“Our energy system was broken,” said Pete Didisheim of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “We felt the permitting process for wind power was also broken, it was unpredictable for all participants.”

Baldacci gave the task force its mandate:

• To make Maine a leader in wind power development.

• To protect Maine’s quality of place and natural resources.

• And to maximize the tangible benefits Maine people receive from wind power development.

In other words, said Rep. Stacey Fitts, a Pittsfield Republican on the task force, their mandate was to “find areas that are appropriate and find ways that it can be done rather than ways to keep it from being done.”

There was never a mandate for the task force to examine the relative merits of wind power development in Maine. Instead, members started from the assumption that wind power should be developed in Maine, and the sooner, the better.

“We felt we were in somewhat of a race with other states and Canadian providers” to build wind energy generation, said Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham, a task force member and co-chairman of the legislature’s Utilities and Energy Committee.

Questionable presumptions

Baldacci’s executive order establishing the task force stated that, “Maine energy policy seeks to promote the development and use of renewable energy sources to help reduce Maine’s dependence on imported fossil fuels.”

The dominant fuel used to generate electricity in Maine is an imported fossil fuel – natural gas from Canada. And wind power could make a small dent in how much natural gas Maine uses for electricity generation.

But Baldacci’s statement about dependence on imported fossil fuels – and many others he made both before and subsequently, including one reference to the “tyranny of foreign oil,” one reference to the need to “free ourselves from foreign oil” and two references to Maine’s “dependency on oil” in his final State of the State address – implicitly tied wind energy production to the goal of reducing the use of foreign oil, with its volatile prices as well as its documented contribution to climate change.

Yet using wind energy doesn’t lower dependence on imported foreign oil. That’s because the majority of imported oil in Maine is used for heating and transportation.

“Maine uses very little oil to produce electricity,” said Mark Isaacson, a dam owner, a founding member of the industry group Independent Energy Producers of Maine and an active player in the restructuring of Maine’s electric utility industry.

John Kerry, the governor’s energy czar and a member of the task force, acknowledged that oil is used to fuel vehicles and to warm Maine buildings.

“Today we don’t use electricity to run our cars or heat our homes,” Kerry said in a recent interview.

And switching our dependence from foreign oil to Maine-produced electricity isn’t likely to happen very soon, Bartlett said: “Right now, people can’t switch to electric cars and heating – if they did, we’d be in trouble.”

So was one of the fundamental premises of the task force false, or at least misleading?

Kerry, the governor’s energy czar, defended his boss’ premise: “In the future, many people have proposed that we use our electricity to heat our homes and power our cars.”

There were other claims Baldacci made at the time about wind power’s advantages that, similarly, have been challenged.

In a critique published by the Maine Center for Economic Policy in late 2008, state Sen. Peter Mills, R-Cornville, argued that after the initial construction spending, the wind energy industry would not provide widespread economic benefit for the state or long-term job creation, as Baldacci asserted when he established the task force.

“Because it takes remarkably little effort to maintain a turbine, there are few permanent jobs created by a wind power project,” Mills wrote. In a subsequent interview, Mills pointed to the relatively few jobs created by the Kibby Mountain wind power development. “There are 11 people in ongoing jobs,” he said, “not 111.”

Likewise, while taxes paid on wind power installations have been locally beneficial, they are not broadly shared across Maine.

“The tax benefit has not been available to Maine people generally,” Mills  said in the interview. The duration of any tax benefit is also limited, he said, because the turbines have a 20-year life-span and depreciate in value over that period.

Furthermore, the unorganized territory, or UT, where many of the large installations have been built, “already has the lowest tax rates in Maine,” Mills wrote in his critique. “(A)nd wind power could reduce them by a third more.

“But the benefit will accrue primarily to those who own land in the UT, the large out-of-state owners like Irving, Wagner and Plum Creek who already benefit from the special ‘tree growth’ tax treatment … and who stand to gain substantially from leasing their ridge tops to the wind developers.”

Task force favored wind power

There were 16 members on the task force: several members of the Baldacci administration, a wind power attorney, two staff from state environmental groups (with a third acting as an alternate), Democratic and Republican lawmakers, a union member and a representative of the Independent Energy Producers of Maine. The chairman was Alec Giffen, director of the Maine Forest Service.

All members of the task force favored wind power development, although the environmental groups had each opposed specific wind power projects in the past. The environmental groups’ battle against the Redington wind project in western Maine, close to the Appalachian Trail, had recently ended with Redington’s rejection by the Land Use Regulation Commission. While they won the fight to reject Redington, the groups were chastened by accusations of being insufficiently concerned with stemming global warming.

Did the criticism leveled at the environmental members of the task force make them more eager to demonstrate their support for wind power?

“I think we did start with an assumption that wind power development was going to take place in Maine,” said David Publicover, a forestry specialist with the Appalachian Mountain Club. “We never really engaged in an argument as to whether there should be wind power development in Maine.”

What changed

The task force proposed that the Legislature make significant changes to state law:

• Eliminate certain scenic and zoning standards that were a barrier to placing wind turbines in the landscape.

• Streamline and expedite consideration of construction proposals.

• Eliminate a layer of legal appeal in wind power projects.

• Set aggressive goals for wind power production over the next dozen years: 2,000 megawatts of wind power capacity by 2015 and at least 3,000 megawatts by 2020, of which 300 should be built offshore. (The state today has 111 turbines representing 265 megawatts of installed wind power, with 161 megawatts in line to begin production.)

• Guide wind power development to all of the incorporated towns in the state as well as a significant portion of territory under the jurisdiction of the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC), setting aside areas in the so-called “core” of LURC where development would not occur.

The changes in the scenic and zoning standards, Publicover said, were significant but not hard to agree upon.

“The changes got rid of the requirement that it fit harmoniously into the natural landscape,” he said. “If you used that, you couldn’t have wind power in undeveloped ridgelines, only in Walmart parking lots.”

The changes also allowed wind power to be essentially an allowed use in much of LURC’s jurisdiction.

“Previously wind power had to go through rezoning” in LURC territory in order to be built, Publicover said. “And that had certain criteria, certain hurdles that had to be met that, if you interpreted them with a straight face, you could never allow it and essentially LURC was in the uncomfortable position of having to ignore the actual meaning of their regulations to allow wind power.”

The 2,000 and 3,000 megawatt goals for the state were also not controversial, nor was the substantial amount of wind turbine construction, largely along miles of Maine mountaintops, that would be necessary to reach that goal.

When asked if the task force had discussed the number of turbines that would have to be erected to meet that goal, Giffen, the chairman, said, “Not that I recall.”

Other members of the task force could also not remember any discussion about the number of turbines, although one attendee at meetings, Steve Clark from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, did present the task force with his estimate that it would take 1,000 to 2,000 turbines to meet the goal.

“There were one or two very brief questions and that was it, they didn’t explore that issue any further,” Clark said.

Naomi Schalit is executive director and senior reporter of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonprofit and nonpartisan journalism organization based in Hallowell. The center can be reached at mainecenter@gmail.com and on the Web at pinetreewatchdog.org.

Flaws in bill like skating on ‘dull skates’

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