Monday, May 14, 2007

Groups divided over wind power project

Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel
Thursday, May 10, 2007

AUGUSTA -- There was mixed reaction from environmental groups Wednesday to a plan to scale back a controversial wind power project.

Maine Mountain Power proposed stripping 12 wind turbines on environmentally sensitive Redington Pond Range from the Redington Wind Farm application that was rejected in January in an unusual 6-1 vote in which the Land Use Regulation Commission went against the recommendation of its staff.

In a letter dated Wednesday, Maine Mountain Power asked the commission to reopen the record to reconsider the proposal with only the 18 wind turbines on nearby Black Nubble Mountain.

While the Black Nubble proposal met with the approval of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, other environmental organizations said the commission should render a final decision on the Redington project and consider the 18 turbines on Black Nubble as a new application.

The two-mountain Redington Wind Farm application was considered precedent-setting because it was just the second proposed in the Land Use Regulation Commission jurisdiction, which includes about half of Maine.

A prior wind energy project was approved by the commission but never built.

Maine has by far the most wind power potential in New England, where there is a growing market for green energy, but wind power projects are often controversial because they tend to be located in highly visible locations, including islands just off the coast or on mountain tops.

The Redington Wind Farm proposal attracted the ire of environmental groups because the turbines on Redington Pond Range came within a mile of the Appalachian Trail and because of its potential to affect the habitat of rare or endangered species.

Dennis Bailey, spokesman for Maine Mountain Power, said Wednesday that the new Black Nubble project is a compromise that preserves much of the benefits of the project -- the 18 turbines could produce about 54 megawatts of electricity at peak capacity -- while reducing environmental impacts.

Under the proposal, land on Redington Pond Range, a 4,000-foot mountain, would be protected, according to Maine Mountain Power's letter to the commission.

Last year, the Natural Resources Council of Maine had also proposed that Maine Mountain Power drop Redington from the project, but at that time the developers said that with the loss of those turbines, the project would no longer be financially viable.

Wednesday, Bailey said that at the time, that assessment was correct.

He said that even if the Black Nubble project is approved by the commission, it is not clear if Maine Mountain Power will be able to sell power from the site at a price that will provide a return for investors.

"There is nothing nailed down yet," he said, referring to contracts for the sale of power.

He said the developers are "going back to the drawing board" to find ways to cut project costs.

Pete Didisheim, director of advocacy at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said he believes the Black Nubble project should be considered.

"We think it strikes a much better balance on the important issues," said Didisheim.

The turbines on Black Nubble would still be visible from the Appalachian Trail, but he said eliminating Redington would remove the closest turbines.

Didisheim also said the new proposal calls for protecting a mountain top in the middle of a tract of roughly 35,000 roadless acres.

Any energy source involves tradeoffs, he said, but global warming illustrates that the current energy system -- dependent on power plants that burn coal and other fossil fuels -- is broken.

"Wind power is one of the technologies that needs to be part of our energy policy moving forward and for those policies to succeed, they need to translate into actual approved projects that are generating power," he said.

Not all environmental groups were ready to support the Black Nubble project, however.

Jody Jones, wildlife ecologist at Maine Audubon, said it is simply too late in the process for Maine Mountain Power to come forward with a new proposal.

"This process should not be subverted in the 11th hour," said Jones.

Even without the turbines on Redington Pond Range, the project is still located in a sensitive high mountain area and will set a standard for future projects, she said.

Commissioners voted to reject the staff recommendation to approve the project in January, but Jones said they have still not voted on a denial order.

When commissioners rejected the staff recommendation in January, they directed staff to come back to them with another recommendation, this one to deny the project.

That could come before the commission as early as June.

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