Wind Power & Municipalities

(from Maine Townsman, October 2009)
By Douglas Rooks

Imagine what might happen if your town of 700 residents in a rural part of Maine was suddenly presented with a huge development proposal worth at least $75 million.

That scenario became reality for the town of Oakfield in southern Aroostook County when First Wind (formerly UPC) came calling with plans for a 34-turbine, 51 megawatt wind farm for the Oakfield Hills ridge that bisects the township, from southwest to northeast.

Town Manager Dale Morris says Oakfield was determined to avoid the lengthy controversies that have attended wind development in Mars Hill, where the first industrial-sized wind farm in New England was completed in 2006, and in northern Penobscot County, where the Rollins Mountain project (40 turbines, 60 megawatts) runs through Burlington, Lee, Lincoln and Winn.

In Mars Hill, residents have complained about noise and vibration from the turbines, and in July one family and 16 neighbors filed suit against First Wind, owner of that 28 turbine, 42 megawatt project.

In Lincoln, town and state approvals of the Rollins Mountain plan have prompted appeals from the Friends of Lincoln Lakes group.

Oakfield’s response was to create a technical subcommittee, which includes two independent experts, to evaluate the project. After the panel filed its report in September, recommending approval with conditions and changes, a special town meeting approved the project. Approval by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is pending, with a decision required by November 2.

Wind power Takes Off

As wind power has quickly developed into a major Maine industry, proposals have sprung up on a wide variety of fronts. Since 2006, projects valued at $500 million and producing 235 megawatts have been completed or are under construction, and another 86 megawatts has been approved and is in the pre-construction stage.

While land-base wind power is already a reality, Maine’s ocean resources are also attracting intense interest. The state is now reviewing sites for testing in the immediate offshore area, where fixed platforms are possible in the relatively shallow ocean waters. A University of Maine research effort is also targeting the 8-10 mile zone further offshore, out of sight of land, where floating platforms would be required – with technology still to be proven – where Maine could generate 8 gigawatts of electricity, the equivalent of nearly 10 Maine Yankee plants.

But the major interest for towns will continue to be the land-based sites within their borders. And despite the cavalcade of proposals across the landscape, the type of projects being planned and built seem to fall into three categories – municipal, small commercial, and industrial.

On-line in Pittsfield

The first, and least problematic, are wind turbines built by municipalities themselves. Perhaps the first of many such units was unveiled in Pittsfield in September. A single turbine was installed at the town recycling and transfer station, and won immediate praise from station manager Don Chute for its contribution to energy independence and sustainability. “It’s definitely a dream,” he told the Central Maine Morning Sentinel. “It’s showing you can’t shut us out. We’re a resilient race.”

The transfer station turbine is mounted on a 100-foot tower – about a third of the height of those used in the industrial scale-projects – and produces 10 kilowatts. The $63,000 cost was covered largely through a $50,000 grant from Maine’s Voluntary Renewable Resources Fund, which funds demonstration projects aimed at showing the practicality of alternative energy.

The turbine has already generated a lot of local interest, with school groups taking field trips to learn about this application of science and technology.

Demonstration in Kennebunkport

Another enthusiast for small municipal applications of wind power is Kennebunkport Town Manager Larry Mead. When the town Conservation Commission began discussing alternative energy for municipal uses, he stepped right in. “I had my eye on the municipal pier as a great place to spotlight the alternative energy resource, and the wind blows all the time there,” he said.

But after looking at the site with the code enforcement officer, it was clear that a tower high enough to hold a small turbine would not meet setback requirement from adjacent properties.

So when a new federal stimulus grant deadline came up for a program administered by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, attention focused elsewhere in town.

“The consultant we found decided the police station had the best potential,” Mead said. Selectmen voted on September 24 to pursue the grant, along with a proposal that would locate solar panels at the elementary school. If the wind application is successful, the town will erect two small turbines to power the police department’s building. At a price of $48,000, the project would require a 20% town match, or $9,200, money Mead said is available. For the small turbines, Mead said, noise is not a problem.

Police Chief Joe Bruni strongly supports wind turbines, pointing out that with its computers, radios and air conditioning units, his department if probably the largest municipal user of electricity.

Mead said that the grant deadline was “a little awkward” for the town, in that there was no time for extensive testing of any site. “They say you should test for a year before building, but we don’t have that luxury,” he said.

Small-scale Commercial Project in Buckfield

In a middle category of wind power are smaller-scale commercial projects, often being proposed by Maine entrepreneurs rather than companies with access to international financing like First Wind. These projects are usually in the 1-3 megawatt range. One of them, proposed by Kean Project Engineering, would put three turbines on Streaked Mountain in Buckfield, producing 1.5 megawatts for local use.

Buckfield Town Manager Glen Holmes said that the proposal could have been prompted as a result of discussions three neighboring towns were having about wind power in an ad hoc committee. Buckfield, Hartford and Sumner already share a school district, SAD 39 that recently became part of RSU 10 in a three-SAD consolidation. Since they were used to cooperating on school issues, a regional discussion of the wind resource representing by the mountain ridges in the area seemed a natural fit.

Kean president Kirk Nadeau ended up proposing two separate projects, one in Buckfield and the other on a town-owned parcel in Sumner. The Sumner project produced two town meeting votes on a plan that included clearing a road into the site. That idea proved controversial, and both times the plan failed by a handful of votes.

In Buckfield, the reception has been more positive, but not without its quirks. A retired MIT-trained engineer, for instance, asked at a public meeting whether anyone had studied the effects of removing wind energy from the environment through turbines. Apparently no one had. And while noise seemed to be the biggest concern, the possibility of ice being thrown long distances from the turbine blades also came up.

Nadeau first floated his idea for a wind farm in Buckfield last summer but delayed pursuing it so the town could prepare. When he decided to move ahead this year, opposition began to develop, particularly from residents who lived near the project site. One landowner who would sell or lease land for the project allowed test turbines to go up, and the results showed that the site is viable, Holmes said.

The most concerted opposition comes from a landowner closest to the nearest turbine location, which is 2,000 feet away. Holmes notes that the State Planning Office guidelines call for a 600-foot setback, but added that, “For some people, even a mile is going to be too close.”

He suggested that towns might want to simply set a noise standard based on decibel readings. “I think we should let engineers be engineers,” he said. “If they can meet the standard, then they should be able to build” – emphasizing that, in this case, he’s speaking for himself rather than the town.

After hearing both sides, the planning board has asked selectmen to consider a six-month moratorium on wind power projects, which
Holmes said could be problematic. There have been ordinances developed elsewhere in Maine, and using them makes more sense to him than relying on the Wisconsin ordinance the planning board has studied. That ordinance, for instance, does require a mile setback – almost 10 times the distance set by the SPO guidelines.

There’s also the question whether, with a six-month delay, Kean Engineering might just take its business elsewhere, since many potential sites are available, Holmes said.

Selectmen have decided to hold off, for the moment, on scheduling a special town meeting that would consider the six-month moratorium on development. A group of citizens is collecting signatures – 85 are needed – on a petition to selectmen that would request a special meeting. “It makes sense to the board to wait,” Holmes said. “If they can’t meet the signature requirement, then there wouldn’t be enough support to carry a town meeting vote.”

There are also outspoken supporters of the project in Buckfield. Some focus on the potential benefits for local users if the wind project led to formation of a municipal or regional electric cooperative. “I want to see Maine folks benefit from Maine wind projects,” Nadeau told a public meeting. He noted that larger projects, such as Mars Hill and Rollins Mountain., sell power wholesale to the New England market, not locally.

Also attractive to townspeople are the economic spin-offs from the construction of a $10 million project and the continuing property tax benefits, an estimated $45,000 a year. “Some people say that’s not much,” Holmes said, “but they’d certainly notice if we raised taxes by $45,000 to keep from cutting services.”

Dixfield Calls a Halt

In Dixfield, a larger project that’s more in the industrial class has convinced selectmen that a development moratorium is needed. Town Manager Gene Skibitsky points out that Dixfield has minimal land use controls – just shoreland zoning and subdivision regulations, without any site review or designated commercial zones. “We don’t really have a framework to deal with this,” he said. Selectmen scheduled a special town meeting for later in October, and Skibitsky said there was little doubt it would be approved.

“This will allow us to take a deep breath and consider out options,” he said. Wind power projects have been popping up throughout the area, with First Wind proposing one in Rumford and Patriot Renewables of Quincy, Massachusetts, targeting Carthage as well as Dixfield. Patriot already has one project operating in Maine, a three-turbine wind farm in Freedom, completed in 2008, that produces 4.5 megawatts.

The size of the Dixfield project has yet to be determined, but it is likely to have between eight and 20 turbines on Colonel Holman Mountain, with a two-mile ridgeline considered suitable for development. The project would then produce a rated capacity of between 12 and 30 megawatts, since each turbine produces 1.5 megawatts.

Dixfield called on the Androscoggin Valley Council of Government to write the moratorium question, which would take effect immediately.

Skibitsky said that townspeople have certainly been talking about the wind project, with opponents a bit more vocal though not necessarily more numerous than supporters. “People want to see us get to work on this,” he said, “whichever side they happen to be on.”

Aiming for Consensus in Oakfield

Back in Oakfield, Dale Morris is figuratively breathing a sigh of relief since the town’s approval, by a 9-1 margin, of the First Wind project on September 28, which was immediately hailed by Gov. John Baldacci in his weekly radio address. The special meeting could have placed a six-month moratorium on the project, but instead approved the technical subcommittee’s guidelines, which in turn allowed the project to move forward to the state level.

Morris said the subcommittee was the right way to go, particularly for a small town with few resources or planning expertise. First Wind has agreed to reimburse Oakfield for the cost of hiring the experts – Ken Kaliski of Resource Systems Group in White River Junction, Vermont, an acoustical engineer, and John Edgerton of Wright-Pierce in Topsham, a civil engineer. But Morris emphasized that the town made it own choice of consultants, and that the subcommittee, which included both selectmen and planning board members, worked well together.

Oakfield did have the benefit of having known, for years, that First Wind might be pursuing the project. The first test instruments were installed in 2003, and another, more sophisticated set, came online in 2007. The 45-page subcommittee report answered many questions and gave assurances on such subjects as property setbacks, ice throw, and wildlife impacts.

Part of the guarantees First Wind provided to the town includes a Sound Complaint Response and Resolution Protocol – a forum for handling any complaints that arise from operations, which the company has agreed to make a condition of approval by DEP. It also sets cumulative noise limits for any projects First Wind might build in Oakfield. The daytime limit would be 45 decibels, and 35 decibels at night.

Morris said that no project of this size and complexity will ever gain unanimous approval, but he thinks townspeople have been able to understand the important points. “It’s all about comfort level,” he said. “If you understand something, you can live with it. We tried not to leave any questions unanswered.”

Oakfield will benefit substantially from the project. A TIF agreement will provide $10 million to the town coffers, along with a $5 million “common fund” that will produce annual checks to each resident taxpayer. Following expiration of the TIF in 20 years, the town will continue to receive property tax revenues.

For towns that do attract the attention of wind developers, Morris offers the following advice:

“First, see if the selectmen and towns manager think this is something they want to pursue. If it’s not, or they’re not sure, propose a moratorium and draft an ordinance that meets the town’s needs.”

And he strongly recommends the technical committee approach, in part because wind power projects are relatively new and so much disagreement exists about their effects.

He also suggests that town officials take the time, and have the patience, to understand the state and federal regulatory processes. This need not take forever – Oakfield’s committee formed, did its work, and filed its report all within three months.

First Wind apparently intends to go full speed ahead on the Oakfield project, possibly beginning construction in the first quarter of 2010. The haste is due to a federal deadline – if it’s built soon, the project is eligible for American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (federal stimulus) funding of up to 30 to 40% of project costs.

Morris thinks the town got a fair deal from First Wind. “In Alaska, everyone benefits from the energy resources they have,” Morris said. “We can have the same kind of benefits here.” Plus, he might have added, the energy involved isn’t petroleum, but renewable and climate friendly wind.

Douglas Rooks is a freelance writer from West Gardiner and regular contributor to the Townsman,