$100M Maine wind farm faces rejection because of ‘scenic impacts’

Source: Elizabeth Harball, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Some say that the visual impacts of wind turbines are “in the eye of the beholder.” But in Maine, a piece of legislation attempts to define when a wind farm mars the scenery and when it doesn’t.

Recently, that law has been put to the test. A $100 million wind energy development in Maine proposed by the Boston-based company First Wind faces likely rejection by a state agency due to its effect on the surrounding area’s “scenic character.” Renewable energy advocates argue that such a decision could set a confusing precedent for future wind developers in the state.Last week, Maine’s Board of Environmental Protection delayed a decision to confirm or deny the state Department of Environmental Protection’s determination that the proposed Bowers Wind Project, a 16-turbine, 48-megawatt farm, would adversely affect views from the constellation of lakes, ponds and rivers that surround the project.

But Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Patricia Aho told the Bangor Daily News that it is likely that the project will be denied at the board’s next meeting on June 5.

“We believe that the project would have represented an unreasonable adverse impact to scenic character and existing uses related to that,” DEP spokeswoman Jessamine Logan said in an email.

In an interview, First Wind spokesman John Lamontagne noted that “a third-party consultant looked at this project and said that it met the existing state standards” having to do with visual impacts to scenery.

“We felt that the project met the state standards, and we had hoped the DEP would recognize the major benefits the project would bring to Maine,” Lamontagne said.

‘Friends of Maine Mountains’ oppose

The project would erect 16 turbines on Maine’s Bowers Mountain, located in a region that opponents argue is home to one of the state’s key outdoor recreation industries.

“The guide business there is legendary, and people from all around the world pay good money to go there and catch fish,” said Chris O’Neil, director of public affairs for Friends of Maine Mountains, a group that opposes wind development in the state.

“When you’re talking about visual impact, it’s easy for people to dismiss that,” O’Neil said, but he argued that the standards are “well-defined in the law.”

Under Maine’s Wind Energy Act, a wind project can be denied if it is located up to 8 miles from an official “scenic resource of state or national significance” and results in “an unreasonable adverse effect on the scenic character” of the resource.

But the DEP’s 18-page review of the project’s visual impacts on nearby bodies of water shows that the interpretation of this law can vary.

The agency hired an “independent scenic expert” to survey the area surrounding the proposed project, who ranked the visual impacts to surrounding ponds and lakes in terms of “scenic criteria” — ponds and lakes that had already been assigned a predetermined rating of “outstanding,” or at least “significant.”

The expert determined that “while the Bowers Wind Project is found to have an Adverse scenic impact, it does not reach the level of Unreasonably Adverse.”

But in May 2013, the DEP took its own motorboat tour of the nearby lakes. This tour, in addition to public testimony against the project and user surveys, led the agency to disagree with the expert’s conclusion.

Jeremy Payne, executive director at Maine Renewable Energy Association, argues that this review proves the law is “very subjective.”

“It creates a lot of opportunity for people who might not want this industry to grow in Maine to use the visual standard as a reason to deny projects,” Payne said.

Payne believes that the DEP’s determination leaves no clear path forward for wind energy developers in Maine, which may have a hard time determining the difference between “Adverse” and “Unreasonably Adverse” scenic impacts on their own.

“It’s like playing darts with a blindfold on; you have no idea what you’re aiming for as an applicant,” he said. “If applicants don’t have a clear understanding of what is expected of them, I don’t think we’re going to see a whole lot more applicants.”

Governor’s thumb on the scales?

Lamontagne said First Wind still considers Maine a good place to pursue development. The company has already built five wind projects in Maine, with a sixth currently under construction.

But Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) has taken an increasingly strong position against wind energy development, which he argues comes at an unreasonable cost to ratepayers. Some say that this could also be a factor in the momentum against the Bowers Mountain project.

“The context here in Maine now is that we have a governor who is irrationally opposed to clean energy, particularly wind power,” said Glen Brand, director of the Maine chapter of the Sierra Club. “We think that his administration in part turned down the Bowers project for reasons that have little to do with Maine’s Wind Power Act.”

Last year, LePage took agressive steps to scuttle an offshore wind pilot project proposed by Norwegian oil and gas company Statoil ASA (ClimateWire, April 29).

The LePage administration also introduced legislation that would roll back the state’s wind energy targets this March.

So far, there is no direct evidence to show that the governor played a role in raising roadblocks for the Bowers Wind Project.

But Payne also said the dialogue surrounding the Bowers Wind Project may have become “politicized.”

“It’s hard for a regulatory agency not to be influenced when they hear about, they read about, or they are asked about ultimately what their boss says about an industry they are charged with regulating. And it’s pretty clear that the governor is anti-wind,” Payne said.