Dennis J. Mahar: Stop and analyze wind power projects before building more

Stop and analyze wind power projects before building more

Posted July 19, 2011, at 6:54 p.m.

I am a seasonal resident on Long Pond in Lincoln. In the winter months, I live in Gainesville, Fla., where I teach economics at the University of Florida. I am also a senior fellow at the Public Utility Research Center at the same university. Though I currently work in an institution of higher learning, I am definitely not an “ivory tower” academic with little practical experience in the real world.


Prior to moving to Florida, I lived in Washington, D.C., for 25 years working for the World Bank, by far the world’s largest development finance institution. While at the World Bank, I served, among other things, as the chief of the Environmental Analysis Division for Latin America and the Caribbean as well as the chief of training in the area of natural resources and the environment worldwide.


Over the years, I have helped design, supervise and evaluate well over 100 development projects in many sectors and in many parts of the world. Based on my long years of work experience, I have a strong gut feeling that the siting of industrial wind power projects along the spine of central and northern Maine is not such a good idea.


Regarding First Wind’s Rollins Project recently installed in the Lincoln area, there can be no doubt that the developer has reaped considerable financial benefits, in no small part due to massive subsidies provided by U.S. taxpayers. The project has also assisted the local economy in the short term by providing employment and an influx of dollars. However, if the longer-term costs and benefits of the project to society as a whole were to be taken into account (through what economists refer to as social cost-benefit analysis) quite a different picture would probably emerge.


Speaking as a landowner in Lincoln, I feel that the Rollins wind power project has come with high costs to me personally with few benefits that I can see. I used to have an exceedingly beautiful view from the dock located in front of my cabin. Indeed, the town of Lincoln website still uses a pre-2011 photo taken from my property to illustrate why people should come to enjoy our (formerly) magnificent 13 lakes and to spend their tourist dollars.


When I arrived at my camp in June, I was shocked and dismayed to discover that 11 giant, unsightly wind turbines erected on a nearby ridge had completely spoiled the view from my dock. This major degradation of the natural environment has greatly reduced the feeling of contentment and well-being that I have always felt in the Maine woods.


Moreover, my training in economics tells me that this marked deterioration of the scenic view has substantially reduced the market value of my property. (Declining property values is a type of cost that would be added to the purely financial costs incurred by the developer in a social cost-benefit analysis). First Wind denies that the visual presence of wind turbines lowers property values, but no one really believes that, do they?


I propose a reasonable and practical recommendation. The state of Maine should immediately commission a comprehensive study of the actual costs and benefits of the six wind power projects that have been built thus far in the state. This must be an independent group, with expertise to analyze the multiplicity of issues regarding wind power. In my view it is unwise, and even reckless, for either the Land Use Regulation Commission or Department of Environmental Protection to continue to approve large, new wind power projects in the state before we know the actual results of similar projects already approved and operating.


Carrying out independent technical evaluations of existing projects before moving on to new ones is internationally accepted good practice, endorsed by just about every major government or nongovernment organization. This should also be a routine practice in Maine.


We must learn from our mistakes so as not to repeat them. The only things that we should replicate are our successes.


Has wind power development in the rural areas of Maine been a success? We really don’t know yet. It is imperative that we find out soon before any more damage is done.


Dennis J. Mahar teaches economics at the University of Florida and spends the summer in Lincoln. He is also a senior fellow at the university’s Public Utility Research Center.


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Hannah Pingree on the Maine expedited wind law

Hannah Pingree - Director of Maine's Office of Innovation and the Future

"Once the committee passed the wind energy bill on to the full House and Senate, lawmakers there didn’t even debate it. They passed it unanimously and with no discussion. House Majority Leader Hannah Pingree, a Democrat from North Haven, says legislators probably didn’t know how many turbines would be constructed in Maine."


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(excerpts) From Part 1 – On Maine’s Wind Law “Once the committee passed the wind energy bill on to the full House and Senate, lawmakers there didn’t even debate it. They passed it unanimously and with no discussion. House Majority Leader Hannah Pingree, a Democrat from North Haven, says legislators probably didn’t know how many turbines would be constructed in Maine if the law’s goals were met." . – Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, August 2010 Part 2 – On Wind and Oil Yet using wind energy doesn’t lower dependence on imported foreign oil. That’s because the majority of imported oil in Maine is used for heating and transportation. And switching our dependence from foreign oil to Maine-produced electricity isn’t likely to happen very soon, says Bartlett. “Right now, people can’t switch to electric cars and heating – if they did, we’d be in trouble.” So was one of the fundamental premises of the task force false, or at least misleading?" Part 3 – On Wind-Required New Transmission Lines Finally, the building of enormous, high-voltage transmission lines that the regional electricity system operator says are required to move substantial amounts of wind power to markets south of Maine was never even discussed by the task force – an omission that Mills said will come to haunt the state.“If you try to put 2,500 or 3,000 megawatts in northern or eastern Maine – oh, my god, try to build the transmission!” said Mills. “It’s not just the towers, it’s the lines – that’s when I begin to think that the goal is a little farfetched.”

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