FARMINGTON – A large crowd of people ignored subzero temperatures to fill the University of Maine at Farmington’s North Dining Hall this morning at the Western Maine Legislative Caucus, as a three-person panel addressed one of the most heavily debated subjects in Maine.
The forum, titled “Racing for the Wind: What does it mean for western Maine?” featured State Sen. Peter Mills, Central Maine Power’s President Sara Burns and Franklin County Commissioner Fred Hardy discussing the economic viability of wind power in Maine. All three focused on the potential challenges facing wind power developers, how the projects could be better integrated into the economy and the potential benefit for Mainers.
Mills, who has been involved in several key legislative committees and has written a highly-regarded essay on wind power, spent his time discussing the viability of wind power in Maine, and what the state could do to encourage new projects.
He pointed out that the mountains and foothills in western and northern Maine run from the northeast to the southwest, while the prevailing winds typically blow from the northwest to the southeast. This arrangement, he said, was perfect for wind turbines, which typically want to be arrayed in a line rather than one behind the other.
“We have dozens, if not scores, of ideal wind system sites on our hilltops,” Mills said, noting that many of these mountaintops were not usable for the harvesting of lumber or any other development.
Mills saw a major economic benefit from wind power development. He noted that the Unorganized Territories had a current value of roughly $3 billion and that the development of 2,000 to 3,000 megawatts of power would nearly double that. He also recommended moving away from property taxes for wind power turbines, instead using an excise tax-like system.
“The property tax is a very crude way of figuring out how that burden should be met,” Mills said. He also said that the turbines should be assessed through a tax based on their power generation, and that the money should be usable throughout more of the development’s county rather than just the U.T. portion.
Hardy addressed that very issue, recounting his county’s experiences with the TransCanada project on Kibby Mountain and the tax increment financing plan they utilized to make the project more viable and retain some funding for economic development in the U.T.
Hardy called the decision to support the TIF “one of the hardest I’ve ever had to make,” but said that he and the other commissioners became concerned that the project might be unable to proceed without some sort of assistance. He also said that the regulatory process, chiefly consisting of the Land Use Regulation Commission’s approval system, was too arduous for many U.T. projects.
“Every time they get close,” Hardy said, “they find another hoop to jump through.”
Burns talked about the need for infrastructural improvements in Maine, getting a laugh from the audience when she noted that Aroostook County still has no power connection with the United States. Most of the bulk transmission system, Burns said, was built after the 1965 New England blackouts, and required updating, a process that CMP is currently undergoing.
She also said that people needed to make up their minds about what fuel was going to be used, if they wanted electricity rates to ever decrease.
“We’ve said no to nuclear,” Burns said. “We’ve said no to hydro. We’ve started to say no to wind. We’ve said no to building new lines. We have some huge challenges here.”
“If we continue to say no, we’re going to say yes to exploding red,” she said, gesturing to charts which showed large increases in the cost of producing electricity over the past decade.
The Western Maine Legislative Caucus meets several times a year, always over a complimentary breakfast at the student center, to discuss some of the biggest issues of the times. Past meetings have featured speakers on topics ranging from energy generation to poverty to school consolidation to TABOR to emergency preparedness. The caucus is sponsored by the Western Mountains Alliance, UMF, Franklin Community Health Network, Greater Franklin Development Corporation, Mission at the Eastward, Western Maine Community Action Program, and MSAD9.