Winds of Change in Maine
Air Date: Week of February 3, 1995
Living on Earth's George Homsy reports on a proposed controversial wind farm in the Maine woods. Several conservation groups, which normally support wind power, are opposed to the plan because they fear its effects on wildlife and their habitat.
CURWOOD: When the great hydropower dams of the Pacific Northwest were built during the Depression, few people thought much about the ecosystem destruction they might bring. Water power was deemed safe and clean. Today, wind power is being pushed as a safe and clean alternative to conventional sources of energy, but it, too, can sometimes be bad news for a local ecosystem. At least that's the concern of some environmental activists who don't want a proposed wind project in the Maine wilderness to get underway. Living on Earth's George Homsy reports.
(Open air urban street sounds)
HOMSY: By 10:30 in the morning, the temperature in downtown Portland barely reaches 12 degrees Fahrenheit. Merchants use music to entice customers to their shops, but there are few takers. Only a handful of pedestrians brave the Arctic chill that blows along Congress Street. It's the time of year that electricity usage is highest in New England. On this bitter January day, the power for electric furnaces and hot water heaters will come from a variety of sources. Coal plants, nuclear reactors, hydroelectric dams, and oil fired facilities all provide power to the region. But all of those energy sources have environmental problems. They pollute the air, or block rivers, or produce nuclear waste. A California company, Kenetech, says it can do better.
(Commercial: howling winds. Man's voice-over with dramatic music: "The wind. Powerful. Clean. A source of natural, unlimited energy. The power of the wind has shaped our history. Today, that power will shape our destiny...")
HOMSY: This corporate video goes on to describe Kenetech's electricity-generating wind farm: hundreds of sleek, airplane-like propellers, each sitting atop a tower, all connected together to produce millions of watts of power. In his Portland office high above Congress Street, Director of Business Development Chris Hurda uses a map to illustrate Kenetech's plan to put more than 600 wind turbines on remote ridges near Maine's border with Quebec. Hurda says the energy potential of the wind here is better than in California's Altamont Pass, one of the world's most renowned sources of wind power.
HURDA: As the wind coming from the northwest comes down the Quebec plain and starts climbing the foothills, and increases its velocity, making essentially the Quebec plain the beginning of a wind tunnel.
HOMSY: The plant would generate 210 megawatts of electricity. That's enough to supply 100,000 homes for a year. Hurda says most of that power will be produced in the winter, when demand for electricity in New England is highest. And, Kenetech says, its wind power is as cheap as the power produced by oil-burning plants. So, they reason, those polluting plants will have to run less. Does it sound too good to be true. For Jim St. Pierre, director of the Sierra Club's Northern Forest Campaign, it does.
ST. PIERRE: This is essentially taking a large scale industrial power generating facility and putting it into one of the most fragile environments in our entire region.
HOMSY: The power plant will be located in Maine's Boundary Mountain Range. The isolated site is 6 miles from the nearest public road. It's used by backpackers and snowmobilers. Mostly, it's timber country. The Sierra Club, along with the National Audubon Society and the Wilderness Society, all support wind power in general. But they worry that this project will spark other development in the northern forest, driving out many species such as hawks, bobcats, black bears, and the golden eagle. The Sierra Club's Jim St. Pierre.
ST. PIERRE: It's a tough call, because there are other wind power projects that are going to be coming along, and there are other development projects for high mountain areas that are going to be coming along. And it's going to be very difficult for the public agencies to say yes to this one and no to others that are going to be coming along.
HOMSY: St. Pierre wants Maine to delay the Kenetech project for a year, while the state studies other potential wind sites. But not all conservation groups oppose the project. Beth Nargusky is a staff attorney for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
NARGUSKY: There were trade-offs that had to be made, and we feel that the benefits of this project in terms of backing out oil and coal power plants, and proving a new source of energy so that we can retire our aging nuclear power plants with a cleaner energy source. But those benefits outweighed the costs of this project.
HOMSY: Nargusky's organization, along with the Conservation Law Foundation, the Appalachian Mountain Club, and the Maine chapter of the Audubon Society, have agreed to support Kenetech's proposal. In return, Kenetech will work to make sure the wind turbines don't hurt bird populations. And they've agreed to fund studies of golden eagle habitats and migration in the region. The state is expected to rule on the Kenetech wind plant by this spring. Regardless of the outcome, project supporter Dan Sosland of the Conservation Law Foundation says the issue has forced an important debate.
SOSLAND: The fact of it is any energy source is going to have some impact. And in this particular case we were willing to say that we are in such dire need to change our energy system that you can't just say the land use implications mean that you shouldn't build this project. Similarly, you can't just say that the energy value is so important that you have to ignore the land use impacts. I mean, what this project has done is challenge groups to strive toward some sort of balance between 2 environmental goals which in a sense may compete or conflict in this particular case.
HOMSY: In cases like the Maine wind project, reaching that balance will mean someone's agenda must be sacrificed. So as new, renewable energy sources become more popular, some environmentalists may find they are compromising, not with their traditional adversaries in government or industry, but with each other. For Living on Earth, I'm George Homsy.
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