2012-01-12 / Front Page

Municipal wind power projects touted

BY DARREN FISHELL
Times Record Staff

Approximately 100 wind energy professionals gathered in Freeport on Wednesday to discuss the future of small, community-owned wind turbines in Maine.

Sue Jones, executive director of the nonprofit wind energy group Windependence, hosted Wednesday’s forum, which focused on a relatively new concept in wind power that allows individuals hooked into an existing power grid to offset traditional power sources with wind power from a turbine on- or off-site, stopping or reversing a power meter.

The concept is called “ net energy billing,” Jones said. It can allow up to 10 meters to share the power offsets created by a single wind turbine.

Jones said she hopes that policies allowing “virtual” crediting of power from an offsite wind turbine will allow communities that are without strong winds or clear lands to also benefit from wind power. Jones said her organization, which she operates from her home in Freeport, will focus this year on providing resources to municipalities interested in taking on wind power projects.

Wind resources in the Mid- coast region are not as strong as other parts of the state, Jones said, but the new idea of shared wind turbines can make the resource beneficial for towns without good wind resources, too.

“These new shared partnerships can start connecting areas that don’t have a good resource with those that do,” Jones said.

In Maine, Jones said, only one such shared power source is currently operating. However, she pointed to community wind projects in Massachusetts as examples for other towns to follow.

At Wednesday’s forum, Steven Clarke, an official with the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environment, spoke about progress in that state with community wind projects.

Clarke said that siting problems and a lack of strong wind resources pose a challenge for projects in Massachusetts, but that the price of energy eventually compelled Gov. Deval Patrick to accelerate efforts to support alternative energy production.

“ We have the seventh highest average retail energy price because we’re at the end of the pipeline,” Clarke said.

Trouble with increasing prices in traditional power could benefit Maine wind power projects as well, according to Clarke.

Overcoming start-up barriers

Steve Wilke, of Sustainable Energy Developments of Ontario, N.Y., said Wednesday that the rising cost of utility-generated electricity could be the leading motivator in expanding the production of wind energy.

“As prices continue to rise and traditional (energy) sources become more expensive, wind becomes more competitive,” Wilke said.

And as turbines get larger, Wilke said, they produce more energy and are, generally, more economical. However, start-up costs can be a barrier.

As the concepts of shared and community turbines continues to develop, Wilke said, large turbine projects can become more affordable to get off the ground.

“ When you look at shared net metering, it lets you use bigger wind turbines to make electricity less expensively,” Wilke said.

In Maine, Jones said, a few community wind projects have sprouted at the University of Maine at Presque Isle and at a project scheduled for completion this spring at Camden Hills Regional High School.

There are no other community wind projects in the state, Jones said, but she is hopeful that net energy billing policies will help encourage growth in small and medium-sized, community-owned wind turbines.

“ Net energy billing has been called a game changer, and it’s really one of the driving forces in Massachusetts that’s making projects financeable and driving resources to municipalities,” Jones said.

Beyond financing, there remain other challenges in gaining public support for wind projects, Wilke said.

Wilke worked with the Camden project and said the students’ campaign to raise funds and pave the way for a wind turbine at the school provides a good road map through the challenges of public resistance to wind power.

“Without getting out in front of concerns about economics and health and long-term viability … your project is completely doomed,” Wilke said. “( At Camden Hills Regional High School), I saw wellinformed and well armed students neutralize these very heated and deep-seated concerns of both community and school board members.”

Jones hopes her organization can provide some guidance and support to help early adopters of community wind projects navigate the challenges of financing and winning public support, though she said there will be some learning along the way.

Misty Gorski, Wiscasset’s director of planning and development, joined in that learning process at Wednesday’s forum.

Gorski said that Wiscasset has no specific wind projects in mind but that she sought to find out what had been done in other towns and what the challenges and potential benefits of a community wind project might be.

Finding out more about what has been done elsewhere and what resources are available to new wind projects will encourage growth in wind turbine use, Jones said, but there will still be new issues to figure out along the way.

“Once some municipalities take the leadership and understand the economics and potentially go forward, others will follow,” Jones said. “But it kind of takes that first one to see what the benefits will be.”

dfishell@timesrecord.com

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