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Tilting at windmills
You might not want to put one in your backyard, but that doesnít necessarily make you a NIMBYist
BY ALEX IRVINE

Thereís nothing like a high-profile lawsuit to focus attention on an issue, and the woeful state of the American energy industry has generated a lot of lawsuits lately. People are suing over Vice President Cheneyís task force, California market-fixing, offshore oil and gas drilling . . . and on October 23, Maine Attorney General Steven Rowe, along with the AGs of 11 other states (plus American Samoa, the cities of New York and Baltimore, and a laundry list of environmental organizations) got into the act by suing the Environmental Protection Agency in an effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from coal-fired plants, particularly those in the Midwest that cause most of the visible air pollution in Maine skies. Another lawsuit is coming (according to a friend of mine in the EPA) as soon as the federal government issues new regulations on "new source review," which will dictate when power plants must update old equipment with cleaner technology.

Itís enough to make my inner utopian want to reject the whole corruption-infested system and strike a blow in the name of renewable resources. So, thinking globally and acting locally, I went down to Portland City Hall and asked Michael J. Nugent, Inspection Services Manager in the Planning and Development Department, what I would have to do if I wanted to build a windmill in my backyard.

The woman next to me at the counter took a step away, as if the desire for windmills might be contagious, but Nugent didnít bat an eyelash. "As long at itís less than 35 feet tall, with a proper foundation," he said, the Portland city code will let you build more or less whatever you want. He asked me to bring him some product information so we could speak in more concrete terms.

Buoyed, I went off in search of windmill product information. What I got in the course of this search was an education in the art of environmental possibility.

For about $6000, you can permit and build a 1.5-kilowatt windmill, letís say a Bergey BWC XL.1, with an inverter and batteries. Portlandís average daily windspeed is about eight miles per hour (for which figure I thank Maine State Climatologist Greg Zielinski and Tony La Croix of the National Weather Service in Gray), at which speed your XL.1 will generate about 70 kilowatt-hours of electricity a month, which sounds great until you do the math and realize that 70 kWh means about eight bucks off your electric bill each month.

The fantasy of self-sufficiency dies hard, though. If you want a system that will handle all of your power needs, plus maybe let you roll the meter back on windy days, youíre looking at something like the 10-kilowatt Bergey GridTek package. With tower and utility interface, the GridTek will set you back in the neighborhood of $35,000 ó possibly more if you hire an electrician to wire it up, a step your local utility strongly recommends.

"We had a guy wire up his windmill wrong so on calm days there was a backfeed, and he was paying us to run it," CMPís John Carroll says, trying not to laugh.

Even without paying for the privilege of running your turbine on calm days, your windmill will spin for decades before it pays itself off ó if it ever does. Peter Talmage, who started designing and installing wind turbines in 1975 (and who has since abandoned wind for solar energy), notes that of the more than 30 turbines he installed in Southern Maine, "thereís one still running ó and itís being maintained by an engineer."

Carroll at CMP has a similar perspective, noting that Maine residential customers are still paying for "stranded costs from [state]-mandated investments in renewable generation" during the í80s. In market terms, wind just doesnít measure up to coal and hydro, CMP found out by investing in renewable energy and watching those investments fail.

Times change, though, and there are currently two fairly large industrial wind projects proposed for Maine. Bangor-based Evergreen Wind Energy, a subsidiary of UPC Wind Partners out of Newton, Massachusetts, is working on a wind farm to be built on Mars Hill Mountain, and Endless Energy of Yarmouth has plans for two parcels of land near Sugarloaf. Differing reactions to these two projects go a long way toward crystallizing the issues surrounding wind power, one of which is visual impact, as I found out when I kept looking into my residential turbine dream.

Even if you can afford to build the XL.1 or the GridTek system (or any of the other windmills available through retail outlets), youíre not out of the woods yet. Portlandís 35-foot height restriction makes it nearly impossible to construct a working wind turbine within city limits, according to Talmage and Colin Kerr of Windstream Power Systems. Within 40 feet of the ground, turbulence and surface friction seriously compromise the efficiency of turbines; Talmage notes the wind engineerís rule of thumb that a tower must be 40 feet higher than everything within 500 feet, which means that a working city windmill would have to sit on an 80- to 100-foot tower. The guy wires and footings would take up more space than the average house lot on the peninsula. Portlandís Zoning Board of Appeals might grant a variance, but you canít count on it.

You might just have to loosen your grip on that utopian dream and look into buying green power through a company like Brunswickís Maine Interfaith Power and Light (actually the only all-green residential provider), instead of accepting some giant conglomerateís Standard Offer, if you want to save the world.

Other green energy brokers work with commercial clients ó like Colby College, which is in the process of going completely green ó and if Endless Energy and Evergreen Windpower get their projects built, Interfaith might not be the environmentally minded Maine consumerís only residential choice.

Harley Lee is President of Endless Energy. His plan calls for 29 turbines, 15 on Redington Pond Mountain and 14 on Black Nubble. At their peak generating capacity, they will eliminate 600,000 pounds of fossil-fuel emissions every day, and Lee enthuses about their potential to diminish air pollution, strip mining, and other upstream costs of coal-fired power production. These hidden costs and non-economic downsides are called "externalities" in the parlance of the utility industry, and the Redington project has brought windís externalities into sharp focus for certain people in western Maine.

Come to think of it, Iím not sure Iíd want an 80-foot tower in my back yard, and Iím pretty sure my neighbors would be against it. Take the same reaction on a macro scale, and you have the initial response to a number of wind-power projects. The towers are huge, up to 400 feet tall, and they tend to be sited on mountaintops and ridgelines because thatís where the wind is good. This means building roads and stringing power lines and erecting industrial-sized towers, and in the case of the Redington Pond project it means that Harley Lee has a sworn enemy in the Appalachian Trail Conference.

The ATC Web site contains a vigorous statement opposing Leeís wind farm. At its heart is a naked appeal to the aesthetic sense of the wilderness lover: "The towers ó as high as a 40-story building ó would be visible for about four days of hiking on the Trail . . . They would appear to crawl across the ranges by day as the blades whirled and to be like little lightning strokes at night, as their strobe beacons alerted airplanes to their presence, destroying any illusion of remoteness." The club further decries the roads that would be built and forest to be cleared for the towers, and concludes by arguing that allowing a development of this kind so close to the trail would "set the bar dangerously low" for other projects that might threaten the trailís views.

The Redington wind farm, if built, will be within seven miles of both Sugarloaf and Saddleback ski resorts, in addition to a Navy survival school. One might wonder how much "illusion of remoteness" remains along that part of the trail. And Harley Lee takes issue with the ATCís claim that the farm will be visible for four days on the trail. "Iíve hiked that part of the trail," he says with some emphasis. "The only places you can see the site are from ridgetops and when you come out into areas that have been clear-cut," either for views or lumber.

The Appalachian Trail Conferenceís J.T. Horn says that there is "some truth" to Leeís argument, but that heís "overstating his case." The ski areas are set below the mountain summits and facing away from the AT, Horn points out, and the Navy facility is invisible except for an occasional low-flying plane. And sure, Horn says, the towers might only be visible from ridgetops and summits, "but summits are where people stop to look around."

Hornís most convincing argument: Of the seven New England wind-power projects proposed at locations within sight of the AT, "Redington is the only one weíre opposing," he says.

Why? Because the others are all proposed for mountaintops that already contain ski areas or communication towers, or are situated at the edge of otherwise developed areas. Redington meets none of those criteria, Horn says, and the state Land Use Regulatory Commission has designated Redington and Black Nubble "mountain protection subdistricts" ó meaning that Endless Energy would have to rezone them before building.

Apart from his disagreement with the ATC over the amount of view-shed degradation, Lee notes that wind farms have become ecotourism attractions in a number of places. He plans to offer public access to Redington Pond "except when the turbines are icing," shuttling tours and school groups to the site in a biodiesel bus.

Lee gets even more animated when addressing "the bird issue."

See, wind turbines do kill birds. In fact, when I mention the backyard-windmill dream to someone, the most common response involves bird mortality. This, it seems, is wind powerís most prominent externality in the public consciousness.

Except itís not really a problem anymore.

It all started with Altamont. Not that Altamont, although like Altamont Speedway, Altamont Pass signaled a loss of innocence. At the Speedway, the í60s died; at the Pass in the early í90s, in a forest of 6000 turbines, the utopian dreams of wind-power apostles fell to earth among the corpses of thousands ó maybe tens of thousands ó of birds, among them hundreds and hundreds of endangered eagles and other raptors.

Big environmental dilemmas sprung up: birds vs. windpower.

But the wind industry stepped up to the challenge. In practices that have become standard, they redesigned wind turbines to be larger, able to generate more power at much lower rotational speeds ó and with many fewer towers. They removed individual turbines that killed a large number of birds, and they studied bird populations and migrations more closely when planning new facilities; Harley Lee says heís spent "huge, huge amounts of money" on bird and, especially, raptor studies at the Redington Pond site, even before submitting a formal proposal to the LURC.

As a result, the current scientific consensus is that bird kills on up-to-date wind farms amount to an average of one bird per turbine per year. Compare that to the annual slaughter of perhaps 100 million birds by domestic cats, or the millions of other birds that bounce fatally off buildings and cars, and wind farms start to look pretty safe. "My house kills as many birds in a year" as one of the turbines will, is how Lee puts it, and he goes on to wonder how people can complain about wind energy when coal mining destroys entire mountains in West Virginia.

The ATCís response to the coal question? They offer the same points made by CMPís John Carroll in questioning the viability of Redington Pond: There is currently surplus in-state generating capacity and no transmission capacity available to send power outside Maine to the New England grid anyway. In addition, the club contends that "air-pollution problems in the state, originating in Midwestern coal-fired plants, would not be abated in any significant way. Most of the energy displaced by the wind farmís small output likely would be that from nearby plants that burn more costly fuel sources such as natural gas or biomass, and not coal."

For this, like everything else, Harley Lee has an answer. Itís a long answer, so weíll paraphrase: He plans to offer 20-year contracts on his power, which fossil-fuel plants canít do because theyíre dependent on fluctuating commodity prices and a volatile regulatory climate. Because heíll be able to offer long-term contracts, Redington will step in front of fossil-fuel plants during the daily bidding that determines which Maine power providers get to operate at a particular time. Commodity-driven producers, who are limited to the spot market, donít get to bid until stable cost-constant sources like wind and nuclear energy have. As a result, Redington Pond will remove greenhouse emissions from the atmosphere ó just not Maineís atmosphere.

So here we are again at the global-versus-local crux. I canít build a workable windmill in Portland (although maybe you can, moneybags), but my inner utopian still wants to support the development of wind energy.

On the other hand, people like Peter Talmage and J.T. Horn ask valid questions. "Do we take [places like Redington Pond] and develop them when we could eliminate the need to do it through conservation?" Talmage asks.

And in the same vein, Horn says, "We donít want to become the anti-wind-power people, but weíve looked at this one proposal and decided that itís not the proper place for the application of this technology." He then reiterates the ATCís support for other wind projects near the trail.

It comes down to a balance of externalities, some of which are global and some local: On the wind side you have some dead birds, visual degradation of the landscape, road and power-line building, and a whooshing noise; on the coal side you have acid rain, strip mining, and smog. Is one vista along the Appalachian Trail worth more than 600,000 pounds of emissions removed daily from the air, even if that air isnít in Maine?

Get used to this question. Endless Energy and Evergreen Windpower wonít be the last companies that force you to ask it.

Alex Irvine can be reached at airvine@phx.com


Issue Date: November 7 - 13, 2003
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