Maine set ambitious goals for wind power 15 years ago. Why has it come up short?
Stacey Fitts navigates his old truck up a winding path of gravel and ice until he reaches an exposed ridge. He parks near a giant white wind turbine, whirring in the breeze.
"And it just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger the closer you get," Fitts says as he gazes at the turbine from his driver's seat. "I just think they're pretty. To me, it's kind of like a dance. You know, this is a ballet up here on the hill. And I don't see it as an eyesore."
This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."
In one direction sits a wide, open vista of hills and mountains. Look another way, and you can see a long line of turbines stretching out for miles.
Fitts, a senior director with project operator Onward Energy, says people now flock to the wind farm in Bingham, about 30 miles north of Skowhegan in Somerset County, to see these views. He says the region has become so popular with local snowmobilers and ATVers that traffic jams can form on clear days.
"You know, somewhere, 100 ATVs coming in, one right after another, and having to wait for one another on the roads. It's pretty impressive," he says.
The power generated at the Bingham Wind Farm is impressive, too. With 56 turbines and 186 megawatts of power, it's the largest wind farm in the state.
Nearly 15 years ago, Maine set big goals for this industry: 3,000 megawatts of wind power by 2020 — but the state has come up far short of those goals so far.
"They were aggressive goals. I think they were designed to send a very clear message that we were open for wind development, and we're planning to do our part, regionally," said Phil Bartlett, the chair of the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
In 2007, Bartlett was a legislator and member of a task force charged by then-Gov. John Baldacci with shaping the future of the nascent industry, while still protecting the state's natural resources. The task force helped to set the state's ambitious wind goals, which would later become legislation. And among its recommendations, the group proposed defining certain areas as "expedited" permitting sites to help steer where wind development should — and shouldn't — be focused. It also created new regulations, and required projects to provide tangible benefits to communities.
"Coming off of that, I know, we got a lot of interest and attention from around the country, around the world. There was really an effort to make Maine an attractive place to invest," Bartlett said.
Yet nearly 15 years later, the total wind capacity in Maine is about 1,000 megawatts— significant, but only about a third of the state's original goal. So why did the wind industry come up short?
"I think it's a combination of three factors. The primary one is lack of site suitability," said Kurt Adams, the CEO of Summit Utilities, and a former PUC chair and wind power executive.
Adams said wind energy can only work in particular locations: areas with lots of consistent breezes, while not having a big impact on the local environment and community.
Plus, he said, wind farms need transmission lines with sufficient capacity, and that has been a challenge in a region with a limited grid.
"At the end of the day, there are only so many places where you have good wind, good transmission, small other environmental effects, and a community that wants the development," Adams said.
The other unexpected change from 15 years ago, experts said, is that more developers have moved toward solar power. They say the technology has become far cheaper in recent years, and there can be more flexibility around where they can be located.
Jeremy Payne, with the Maine Renewable Energy Association, said politics have also played a role: in particular, former Gov. Paul LePage's 2018 moratorium banning wind permits in parts of the state. Payne said that while the moratorium faced legal challenges and was ultimately reversed by Gov. Janet Mills, it sent a damaging message to developers that made many question whether to invest here.
"I can't tell you how many phone calls — one of the first questions I got for about two years after that, was about that executive order. 'What does this mean? Should we expect more of this?'" Payne said.
Payne said despite that speed bump, he's optimistic about the industry's future. And while much of the focus of wind energy policy has turned to offshore projects, Payne is also encouraged by legislation that passed last year to create a process for a large transmission line connecting the New England energy grid to Aroostook County, which he says could unlock the potential for a huge amount of wind power from northern Maine.
"So I think it's pretty encouraging," Payne said. "Obviously, we'll have to wait and see how things shake out, what the price looks like, what the benefits look like. But it's the most action that we've seen in that regard, certainly, in my time being involved in these issues."
Despite falling well short of those early projections, the wind industry still points to about $2 billion that it says it has invested in the state, plus tax payments that continue to be distributed to local communities.
Tony Barrett, with the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, said his group has been able to work with developers to mitigate the appearance of the turbines along the landscape. But he'd still like the state to add even more stringent regulations, such as a more expansive analysis of the visual impacts of wind projects.
"We're a little concerned of the Appalachian Trail dying death by 1,000 cuts. Every year, new proposals for roads or transmission lines or projects," Barrett said. "We would just want to make sure that — development's going to happen. But we want to work with developers to make sure it's sited properly."
It's still an open question just how much wind development will be seen in Maine in the near future — a question shaped by infrastructure, technology, and by the political landscape that emerges in the years ahead.
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