Maine hosts almost 1,000 MW of land-based wind power that is operating or scheduled to come online by year-end. The majority of projects have been permitted since 2008, when the legislature approved and then-governor John Baldacci signed into law an Act to Implement Recommendations of the Governor’s Task Force on Wind Power Development, P.L. 2007, ch. 661 (the “Wind Energy Act”). The Wind Energy Act established aggressive goals for wind development in Maine and, in order to reach those goals, modified the review process to encourage the siting of wind power in areas where it is most compatible with existing patterns of development and resource values. The goals for wind power in Maine include at least 2,000 MW of installed capacity by 2015, which did not occur; at least 3,000 MW of installed capacity by 2020 (including 300 MW or more from facilities located in coastal waters); and at least 8,000 MW of installed capacity by 2030 (including 5,000 MW from facilities in coastal waters).
One of the key tools for bringing about wind energy development and its attendant environmental, energy and economic benefits was to identify specific areas for development and enact measures to encourage developers to site projects in those areas. Known as the expedited permitting area, it includes all of the organized areas of the state, as well as portions of the unorganized areas of the state. (Approximately half of Maine, just over 10 million acres, is unorganized, with no local form of government and very sparse population.) Since passage of the Wind Energy Act, 13 grid-scale projects have been permitted, with an installed capacity of more than 700 MW. The projects – ranging in size from a small, three-turbine project on the island of Vinalhaven, to the Bingham Wind project, a 56-turbine, 185 MW project located in western Maine – are all located in the expedited permitting area. Not all projects, however, have been successful. One project was proposed but failed to obtain state approval on the basis of scenic impacts, a second project was proposed but subsequently withdrawn following concerns expressed by the state wildlife agency about impacts to songbirds, and a third has been filed but is now on hold.
Maine is experiencing continued interest in wind development, particularly as the demand for clean energy in New England grows. The Tri-State Clean Energy request for proposals (RFP), in which Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island are soliciting offers for clean energy and transmission to deliver clean energy, has generated significant development interest in Maine. More than 2,000 MW of new land-based wind power projects in Maine have been submitted in response to the Tri-State Clean Energy RFP, and there are additional projects under development. Once the results of that RFP are announced, the pace of development in Maine is expected to pick up.
Although there are many opportunities in Maine, significant challenges remain.
First, the rural areas in the state where projects are proposed are generally distant from load centers, and therefore, transmission availability and constraints remain a key challenge. The Tri-State Clean Energy RFP bids include a number of transmission projects, and expansion of the transmission system in Maine will be key to future development. The lengthy and expensive interconnection process at ISO-New England also presents an ongoing challenge to development in New England.
Second, there is ideological opposition to wind power, which has created regulatory uncertainty in recent years. The current governor, Paul LePage, R-Maine, does not support the industry, which has an effect, albeit difficult to quantify, on agency decision-making.
Third, state wildlife agencies have voiced increased concerns over mortality of birds and bats. Although post-construction mortality data demonstrates that avian mortality at Maine projects is low, the state’s wildlife agency has objected to projects that are located in an area identified as the coastal plain and where passage rates of passerines are thought to be higher than in other areas of the state. This is an issue that will have to be studied and worked out as projects located in that area move through the permitting process. The precipitous decline in the Myotis bat species due to white nose syndrome and the subsequent listing of several species on Maine’s threatened or endangered species list present additional permitting challenges. Maine currently has among the most conservative curtailment recommendations in the country – 6 m/s from a half hour before sunset to a half hour after sunrise from April 20 to Oct. 15.
Ideological opposition and permitting challenges are offset, however, by the public support for wind power that exists in the region. The economic benefits of wind development are significant. One report, “Economic Impacts of Wind Energy Construction and Operations in Maine 2006-2018,” by the Maine Center for Business and Economic Research in December 2014, contends that total spending in Maine on wind projects could reach $1.28 billion by 2018. This amount does not include taxes, however, which are significant, or community benefit payments, which are required as part of the permitting process in an amount no less than $4,000 per turbine per year. Much of the economic spending occurs in rural areas that have few economic opportunities, and the support for wind power by these communities and the many industries that have benefited from wind development is key to the industry’s success. The forest products industry is a major stakeholder in Maine and has been supportive of wind power, which is a compatible land use and provides an alternative revenue stream at a time when value from traditional forestry activities is declining.
Now that Maine has a number of operating projects, there is also less fear of the unknown. For example, outdoor recreation is important in the state, and many feared that visibility of turbines would have a significant adverse impact on outdoor recreational activities. ATV and snowmobile groups have seen the benefits of wind projects and have been supportive of the industry. Additionally, a post-construction intercept survey, conducted in October 2012 by Kleinschmidt for First Wind, of persons recreating on Baskahegan Lake demonstrated that visibility of the turbines was not adversely impacting that user group’s experience. Specifically, 93% of the respondents stated that the Stetson project (which included 55 turbines) had either no effect or a positive effect on their recreational experience on Baskahegan Lake, and 81% stated that the turbines had either no effect or a positive effect on scenic quality.
Maine’s Wind Energy Act was passed to encourage wind development in the state, and to date, it has succeeded in doing so. Although the aggressive goals for development have not been reached, there is continued opportunity and support for the industry. As the demand for clean renewable energy in New England grows, Maine should benefit from additional development.
Juliet Browne is partner, chair and co-chair of Verrill Dana’s Environmental and Energy Groups. She can be reached at (207) 253-4608 or email@example.com.