Maine Wind Farm Gets Green Light, But Project Leader Says Cleantech Efforts Face Too Many Snarls

The wind in New England blows mainly against big green-energy projects. At least that’s the assessment of Matt Kearns, an audibly frazzled project manager for Newton, MA-based UPC Wind.

Despite winning final approval last week for the creation of New England’s largest wind-energy installation, now under construction on a ridge in northern Maine, Kearns says the regulatory and political barriers to placing major cleantech facilities in the region are high enough to scare off all but the most persistent and well-funded entrepreneurs.

“The uncertainty and the costs associated with that uncertainty are pretty overwhelming, frankly, in many cases,” says Kearns, who has spent the last several years shepherding UPC’s Stetson Mountain wind farm project past the cautious scrutiny of state, county, and federal agencies, not to mention local residents and environmental groups.

“Regardless of the fact that we have had a success here, we find that the hurdles are so high, and New England is such a complicated place to do business, that it takes a full-time, highly skilled and coordinated group to make it to the finish line,” Kearns says.

Locations of UPC Wind’s Mars Hill and Stetson Mountain ProjectsUPC Wind first eyed Stetson Mountain as a potentially viable wind-farm site almost five years ago, according to Kearns. As the proposed 38-turbine project drew closer to final approval, it faced growing questions from environmental groups such as Maine Audubon, which worried that the 392-feet-tall turbines would harm birds and bats migrating over the ridge (which is about seven miles southwest of Danforth, ME). Audubon threatened to testify against the project before Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission, which is in charge of zoning for unincorporated wilderness areas in the state.

But after UPC agreed to make design changes and conduct post-construction studies of bird and bat mortality, the group withdrew its objections, and in fact recommended approval. “It took a constant conversation between all the parties, including key groups like the Natural Resources Council of Maine and Maine Audubon, to help us figure out where to be and why,” says Kearns. “I don’t think anybody would describe the process as easy.” The land use commission approved the company’s petition to rezone the land for industrial use in November and voted unanimously to give the project the final go-ahead on January 2.

When completed later this year, the facility is expected to produce 57 megawatts of peak electricity, eclipsing UPC’s 28-turbine, 42-megawatt wind farm in Mars Hill, ME, as New England’s largest. But if every wind project required five years between conception and permitting, few wind developers would bother, Kearns suggests. “We’re really pleased that we’ve gotten this far, and we think it’s in large part due to the support we saw from the commissioners,” he says. “But in comparison to the … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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