Wind Power Proves Divisive, Even for Environmentalists

Tapping into wind power's clean energy isn't as simple as it sounds. Even the environmental groups that tout sustainable energy are divided when it comes to the massive turbines. In Maine, a key environmental group opposes plans to put turbines on a high-visibility ridgeline.

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Off the shores of Cape Cod and in mountains in Vermont, large scale wind power projects are meeting resistance in New England. In western Maine, developers want to harness enough wind to fuel 40,000 homes. The site is drawing objections from local residents and from environmental groups.

From Maine Public Broadcasting, Susan Sharon reports.

(Soundbite of Bicknell's Thrush)

SUSAN SHARON reporting:

This is the sound of the rare Bicknell's Thrush, as recorded by the Cornell University Ornithology Lab. This small, brownish-grey bird inhabits New England mountaintops between Quebec and Nova Scotia and is believed to number less than 50,000. Its prime habitat includes western Maine's Reddington and Black Nubble mountains, an area also being eyed by wind developer Harley Lee.

As rains fell on the Sugarloaf Ski Resort, Lee and his partner squared off inside against a bevy of environmental groups at a recent public hearing on the project. Lee says the site is well suited for their needs.

Mr. HARVEY LEE (Wind Developer): It has really strong winds. It's near power lines. It's between two big ski areas. It's near roads. So there's a whole slew of factors that combine to make it a really good wind farm, say.

SHARON: But to advocates for the Bicknell's Thrush and a threatened rodent called the northern bog lemming, wind is a four letter word, as least as far as plans by Lee and Maine Mountain Power to erect 30 giant turbines to convert wind to energy are concerned. The company estimates the project will save the equivalent of 50,000 gallons of oil per day. But wildlife ecologist Jody Jones of the Maine Audubon Society says the 40-story tall turbines could also chop the birds to bits and disrupt the ecologically sensitive site.

Ms. JODY JONES (Maine Audubon Society): It's not just the Bicknell's Thrush, it's not just the bog lemmings, it's not just the fact that this site has the highest number of migratory birds that pass through it of any site in the East, it's also in the heart of an unfragmented forest system, and it also has a very rare sub-alpine forest.

SHARON: Not all the objections to the Reddington wind farm have to do with wildlife. Some are aesthetic, that the project would spoil the view.

Mr. DAVE PUBLICOVER (Appalachian Mountain Club) There's no question that the project would have a very severe scenic impact on one of the remote, wild and spectacular stretches of the entire Appalachian Trail.

SHARON: Dave Publicover is a staff scientist for the Appalachian Mountain Club.

Mr. PUBLICOVER: Certainly wind power will help. This project won't eliminate fossil fuel burning. We need to do everything we can, but we don't - again, we don't solve the problem of global warming by degrading some of the rarest and most valuable habitats in the state.

SHARON: Similar arguments have plagued large wind farms planned across New England. One in Vermont was recently defeated. Vermont regulators have raised objections to a second one. And in Massachusetts, the Cape Wind Project proposed for Nantucket Sound is under siege. Steve Hinchman, a staff attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, says the Reddington project also faces an uphill battle.

Mr. STEVE HINCHMAN (Conservation Law Foundation): It will be very difficult to permit this project. The resistance is incredibly strong. But the reality is if we don't build this and every other project we can possibly build that's like it, we don't have a chance at slowing down, let alone reversing, the impact of climate change.

SHARON: Here in Maine's western mountains, the affects of global warming are already getting noticed. Wildflowers are blooming earlier, ice in remote lakes is melting sooner and there are fewer days with snow cover.

Scientists agree that climate change is probably a bigger long term threat to Maine's mountain ridge tops than wind projects, and conservation groups along with New England governors have signaled their interest in fighting climate change. But so far those desires have not succeeded in creating consensus on how or where harnessing the wind will be part of the solution.

For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon in Portland, Maine.

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