This week, USA Today explored the renewables debate as it applied to public lands. In the article, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the man responsible for protecting and providing access to our nation's natural and cultural heritage, declared his Department the "real department of energy". In fact, staff at the Interior Department, including U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are working at his direction to fast-track the release of millions of acres of public land for a massive deployment of renewable energy projects. Developers from around the world are lined up waiting to take advantage of the Obama administration's ‘hurry-up and get it done' renewables policy.
Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington DC argued in the Wall Street Journal this month that the push for more renewable-energy projects was necessary to curb the country's dependence on foreign oil and its greenhouse-gas emissions. Statements like Mr. Grumet's fly around with such regularity that, at this point, no one, including the Journal, bothers to question their accuracy.
In fact, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that just 2% of the U.S. electric industry is powered by oil. The bulk of our electricity is sourced from coal, nuclear power, and natural gas. And anyone who caught a T. Boone Pickens' ad on television in the last year would know that eighty-percent of the natural gas consumed in the U.S is produced domestically with virtually all of the remaining 20% imported from Canada. As for carbon emissions, we encourage readers to reference energy expert Tom Hewson's report published this summer entitled "Calculating wind power's environmental benefits."
As the debate intensifies, Windaction.org is witnessing a growing backlash against alternative energy coming from most areas of the country. People who have raised concerns about property values, health effects, the adverse impacts to wildlife etc. are responding to years of being marginalized and dismissed as NIMBY ("not in my backyard"). The clash over whether to produce ‘nonpolluting domestic energy' or protect our natural environment is seen as a false choice borne out of a pie-in-the-sky belief that wind and solar can reliably power a substantial segment of this country.
The degradation these enormous sprawling industrial complexes bring to our cultural and visual resources is least understood. Our colleagues in Texas describe West Texas today as an alien landscape where one can drive for miles and miles and miles (and miles) and see nothing but wind turbines. The nighttime experience is even more surreal with the blinking red lights.
New Mexico artist and engineer Bill Dolson described his resistance to the appearance of "wind farms" as simply the fact that they are large, man-made structures imposed on an otherwise unmolested natural landscape.
His objection, he says, "is really more anthropological than aesthetic. Perhaps because of my training I have couched my objections in aesthetic terms, but really it is something else. What distresses me is a sense of the violation of the natural landscape by the works of man. It seems absolute to me, that no matter whether one likes or dislikes the visual appearance of wind facilities, that they are inherently and irrevocably artificial works of man and not elements of the natural landscape. Whether their presence hinders or improves the appearance of that landscape is really immaterial, because that landscape has forever been altered from its virgin condition. And that is my concern and my objection."
Washington's "hurry up and get it done" renewable energy policies coupled with the billions in taxpayer money available to anyone who shows up leaves no time for communities, businesses, or governments to consider the consequences of our actions. A policy director at a large U.S. utility told Windaction.org "we either get on the train or get run over by it." The renewables train has certainly left the station. The question is how many towers need to be erected, how many view sheds and cultural resources marred, how many dollars squandered and how many lives tainted by poor decisions before the train slows to a controllable rate.
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Last week, First Wind (formerly UPC Wind) hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony at its newest wind farm in New England, the Stetson wind energy facility located in Danforth, Maine. The event celebrated completion of the 38-turbine (57-megawatt) facility and was attended by 100 state and local officials including Maine's Governor Baldacci, construction company representatives, and local business owners.
The Governor addressed the crowd by praising his administration's proactive agenda on wind power development and the State's willingness "...to change for the future while safeguarding its natural resources."
Washington County Commissioner Chris Gardner thanked First Wind for its investment and called the company "tremendous stewards of our environmental resources and, most importantly, the public trust."
The public fawning by Maine's officials is typical of what we've come to expect from Baldacci and other politicos in Maine and its neighboring States of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, but in this case one needn't dig too deep to realize the "feel-good" messages belie the harsh realities surrounding Stetson.
The Stetson wind project involved two separate permit applications submitted to two different State regulatory bodies. The primary application covering the wind farm itself was submitted to and approved by Maine's Land Use Regulatory Commission (LURC). The second, known as the "Line 56 Project", detailed construction of a 38-mile, 115 kV (Line 56) transmission line from Stetson Wind to the Keene Road substation in Chester, Maine and was approved by the State's Department of Environmental Protection (ME-DEP).
According to the "Line 56 Project" application, the 38-mile line involved impacts to 81.1 acres of wetlands including crossing the Penobscot River, the Mattagodus Stream Wildlife Management Area1, and the Mattawamkeag River twice! Windaction.org wonders whether Governor Baldacci was even aware of what his ME-DEP approved when he praised Maine for "safeguarding its natural resources". Impacts to the natural environment notwithstanding, First Wind described the aesthetic impact of building Line 56 as ‘Low' despite the fact that 173 dwellings were located within 300-feet of the line.
But the situation surrounding Stetson is more dire.
In June 2007, three months prior to First Wind submitting its application for permission to construct Line 56, the final draft copy of the Interconnection System Impact Study was released detailing the local- and grid- wide impacts to the New England power grid should Stetson feed 57 MW to the grid. The findings of the study were clear.
The System Impact Study asserted Stetson would have "no significant system impact to the stability, reliability, and operating characteristics" of the New England transmission system but that conclusion tells only part of the story. The study also showed that the existing transmission Line 64, into which Line 56 would feed, was at full capacity (151 MW) servicing Brookfield Power's 126 MW hydroelectric system and Indeck's 25 MW biomass power plant - both base load renewable generators. With the introduction of Stetson energy into Line 64, energy output from Brookfield and/or Indeck would have to be significantly curtailed resulting in a 0 MW net gain in renewable generation for the region. Put another way, Stetson Wind, an intermittent unpredictable generator, could displace existing reliable base load renewables.
In its March 13, 2008 letter to the ME-DEP, Brookfield Power New England LLC correctly stated through its attorney Matthew D. Manahan that "It is not in the public interest for new intermittent renewable generation to be constructed and to pass over Line 56 if it simply displaces existing renewable generation - that can provide capacity to Maine - on another transmission line, Line 64."
Regardless the environmental, visual and transmission impacts of Line 56, ME-DEP granted First Wind the permit.
It's not certain how much, if any of Stetson's 57 MWs of wind energy will ever reach the New England power grid, but according to a recent article in the Bangor Daily News, the ISO-New England and Maine state officials assured Brookfield and Indeck that the established power generators' needs would come first when the Stetson Mountain project goes active. Brookfield Renewable Power Inc.'s general manager told the paper "In layman's terms, they [First Wind] were going to have to take a back seat to our transmission needs." That may be true, but Windaction.org wonders whether First Wind's banker, HSH Nordbank, who wrote a letter endorsing First Wind and the Stetson proposal to ME DEP is aware of this fact. And did Governor Baldacci know this last week when he bowed before the massive towers.
Still, none of these issues have dampened First Wind's plans to build Stetson II, a 17-turbine 25.5 MW facility. According to published documents submitted to LURC in November 2008, Stetson II will connect to the same substation as Stetson I and has no need for additional transmission. (The same holds for First Wind's proposed 60 MW Rollins Wind project.)
First Wind's Stetson II (and Rollins Wind) will further exacerbate the congestion on Line 64, and its energy may never get to the New England grid.
But apparently, First Wind is confident it will still get Maine's permission to build Stetson II.
Windaction.org has learned First Wind has already taken delivery of Stetson II's seventeen turbines. These photos (photo1, photo2) dated December 20, 2008 show the turbine components on the Stetson Mountain leased property and at the old staging area for Stetson I.
With powerful wind proponents like Governor Baldacci and First Wind's Chief Development Officer Kurt Adams (former chairman of Maine's Public Utilities Commission, Maine's primary regulator of transmission infrastructure), First Wind has no reason to sweat the hard questions. But to be safe, Bill LD 199 was introduced in the legislature to squash all possible local obstacles. The summary of LD 199 states:
"The bill grants the state-level wind power siting authority, which is the Department of Environmental Protection or the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission depending on the location of a given wind power development, sole jurisdiction for approving the construction and initial operation of a wind energy development. Specifically, the bill prohibits any other state or local governmental entity from requiring any approval, permit or other condition for the construction or initial operation of a wind energy development that has been certified or permitted by the wind power siting authority."
Contrary to Washington County Commissioner Chris Gardner praise of First Wind as "tremendous stewards ...of the public trust", in fact, First Wind, and those Maine officials entrusted to protect the environment and the health, safety, and welfare of the residents have shown nothing but contempt for the public trust.
Unfortunately, it will be Maine's citizens and the greater New England region who pay the price for Baldacci's ignorance, Kurt Adams audacity, and First Wind's arrogance.
1The Mattagodus wetland system includes one of New England’s most ecologically significant fens (groundwater-fed wetlands), at least ten endangered and threatened species including the Clayton’s copper butterfly (which only occurs at ten sites in the world), and a rare mayfly species whose only known occurrence is in Maine.
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