Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Putting wind power in its place

Portland Press Herald

Can Mainers promote renewable energy, protect natural resources
and agree on sites for turbines? Yes -- but it would take some

January 6, 2008

We have a conflict today in Maine between renewable energy
development and natural resource protection. Recent debates
about several wind power proposals (Kibby, Reddington and
Black Nubble mountains) have brought attention to differences
between constituent groups.

On one side are those who raise concerns about habitat
fragmentation, roads, invasive species, aesthetic blight and the
chance that birds and bats, in particular, could be killed. Many of
their concerns are legitimate in that the resources at issue may
well be adversely affected by the proposed turbines, especially in
sensitive habitat areas.

On the other side are wind power advocates, many state and
local officials and a combination of environmental groups that
trumpet the need for additional renewable energy sources in
Maine to combat global warming.

Unlike the first contingent of resource advocates, the second
group has decided that the site-specific concerns about the
effects on a particular species or habitat are less important than
the larger-scale concerns about the Earth itself.

They may advocate strongly for habitat protection in other
contexts, but when it comes to wind permitting, they ask, "What
good will it do to protect this habitat for a particular songbird if
mean temperatures rise and the tree species required by this
bird move north? We should instead embrace all efforts to
reduce carbon emissions and install this wind turbine, even in
this sensitive habitat area."

The first group, in turn, invokes Vietnam and responds, "Yes,
but it is illogical, ineffective and plain wrong to destroy
something or its habitat in order to save it! Yes, wind power in
Maine is needed, but it should be reserved for 'appropriate
places.' "


This gulf has delayed several attempts to bring wind power to
Maine and stands to stall many more -- or even entirely
discourage wind power developers from initiating proposals
unless consensus is reached about where new wind turbines
may be sited.

The problem is that the "appropriate places" are yet to be
defined. The most detailed geographic mapping to date is from
the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Renewable
Energy Laboratory (for a map, see Wind Powering America).

All involved in these discussions know that this map identifies
two main regions as having high, utility-scale wind power
potential: the offshore islands in bays and the Gulf of Maine, and
the ridge crests in north-central and northwestern Maine.

What is needed is greater specificity within these regions about
areas that will be off-limits to wind power development.

To achieve this, the contending groups need to develop a matrix
of potential ecological impacts and reach a consensus about the
threshold where local, site-specific concerns are so great that
they ought to outweigh the larger-scale concerns of global
climate change.

The product of such a process would be two new geographic
data sets: one that shows the places all can agree will have no
wind development, and one that shows the remainder of the
Energy Department's coverage for the state of Maine -- which
would then be made more readily available to potential wind
power developers.

These products could serve wind power developers and
environmental groups in the same way other "no go" maps have
in the past -- such as with vernal pools, wetlands, and shorebird
stopover sites. The key point is that permitting time would
decrease dramatically because the majority of wrangling over
whether a site is "appropriate" would already have occurred.


Time is of the essence. All studies that project power
consumption in Maine suggest that significant new generation
capacity would need to come on line each year from now
through 2020, at least. At the current rate of megawatts of
renewable energy permitted per year in Maine, unless such a
consensus is reached in the near future, Mainers would, by
default, rely on new fossil fuel generation to meet growing

Given what we now know about the impacts of climate change,
this should not be viewed as an acceptable alternative -- either
by contending group or by anyone else.

Of course, such a process wouldn't be able to tackle all the
details that would come up for any specific wind power
proposal. The impact on aesthetics, for example, would
probably continue to be outside the ability of any scoring matrix
or other decision-making tool to quantify in a way that will
streamline permitting. Similarly, noise may always be an issue
for turbines proposed within anyone's earshot.

For these concerns, one has to simply hope we are in the midst
of a cultural shift, whereby wind turbines will come to be viewed
with the same sense of inspiration, security and identity that
lighthouses along the New England coastline have always been.
(They are, for example, symbols of safety, hope, strength and
prosperity -- and even stand as insurance company logos.)

In our common cultural mind-set, wind turbines have the
distinct potential to become similar beacons that represent local
self-sufficiency, national security and effective environmental
problem-solving. Perhaps someday soon, we'll even observe a
new psychological force driving local land use decisions in
Maine: "turbine envy."

Personally, even with advanced degrees in conservation biology
and years working with both local land use permitting issues
and renewable energy efforts in the private sector, I am
uncertain where the threshold should be. I lean toward what
seems an obvious societal imperative -- that we must take all
necessary steps to reduce carbon emissions lest unfathomable
calamities descend.


Does this mean every wind turbine proposed in adequate-wind
areas should be permitted? No. Should most of them be?
Perhaps, but today no one can reasonably make such a
statement -- the threshold of ecological sensitivities has not
been examined closely enough.

The regulatory implications of a clear statement to this effect
would obviously be enormous. Therefore, formulating the
statement should occur only after a concerted consensus-
building process among all groups in Maine with a stake in these

There are models for this type of process in Maine, in our own
recent experience.

Fifteen years ago, under then-Gov. John McKernan,
Commissioner Dana Connors led the Maine Department of
Transportation in a six-month facilitated public process
involving no fewer than 60 organizations to develop guidelines
that require early public involvement in transportation planning
and decisions.

While the rule-making process was contentious, by the time
Connors hosted a series of statewide public meetings to
present and discuss the results, there was universal acceptance
of the product. Not a single person stood in opposition to the
proposed rules. The culmination was the successful,
uncontested implementation of Maine's landmark Sensible
Transportation Policy Act.

Connors' action took courage and determination. His experience
reminds us that when the stakes are high enough, we do have
the ability to achieve consensus on complex issues.

Our inability to site wind turbines -- at this particular moment
in history, when we know the consequences of inaction --
presents us with one of these rare opportunities.

Copyright © 2008 Blethen Maine Newspapers

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