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Maine paves way in New England -- Permitting streamlined

With the first commercial wind project now online in Maine, the state has passed a new law that streamlines the permitting process for future wind plant and calls for over 2000 MW of wind development by 2015. The major stumbling block for wind power in the New England region has been fears over the visual impact of turbines in the landscape.

"The most important is that it designates expedited permitting areas that cover two-thirds of the state," says Pete Didisheim, director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the state's major environmental organisation. In these areas, covering roughly 57,000 square kilometres, there is now a modified and easier visual impact standard for wind projects. "The biggest change of all is that previously the scenic standard was that a project must fit harmoniously into the landscape. That standard is waved for projects in the expedited review areas," says Didisheim. "And that had been a pretty hard standard to meet if you're a 420 foot tall structure."

The expedited permitting is restricted to areas less sensitive to the sight of wind turbines, particularly in the vast flat and windy expanses of northern Maine. Lawmaker support for the bill is testament that the chosen permitting areas were non-contentious and that wind is heavily supported in the state. The final bill was approved by a vote of 139-0 in the House and 34-0 in the Senate.

Realistic and necessary

The New England market is a fertile one for projects that can get built. Wind speeds in the region are not as strong as many places in America's heartland, but major load centres are closer and power costs quite a bit higher, making wind a competitive option. Also, due to mandates in nearby states for renewables, prices being paid for renewable energy credits are the highest in the country.

"There's a general awareness that the permitting standards that were being used were written thirty years ago when wind wasn't a realistic option," says Didisheim. "Project applicants were needing to demonstrate that they met certain criteria that just didn't make sense for wind power. That's all been cleaned up so there should be increased predictability and reduced risk on the part of applicants."

Nearly all projects will now go through Maine's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) instead of the Land Use Regulation Committee. Permitting is also statutorily established to take no longer than 270 days. The initial permits will be decided at the commissioner level of the DEP, not by the citizen board of environmental protection. That oversight board will serve as an appeals instance.

Although there is no specific additional incentive to promote wind in Maine beyond the streamlined permitting process, the law calls for the development of over 2000 MW of wind by 2015 and at least 3000 MW by 2020. Those may be big numbers for a state with only 42 MW of installed wind but Didisheim says those goals are doable. "If you take all the project activity that looks viable and project some on top of that, two thousand megawatt is possible, and three thousand by 2020 is also a stretch goal, but we think both realistic and necessary," he says.

Didisheim says all the big wind project developers in the eastern US are prospecting for sites in Maine. UPC Wind, which last month changed its name to First Wind, recently won permitting approval from state regulators for its 57 MW Stetson project, currently under construction. The company was responsible for bringing online Maine's only wind farm, the 42 MW Mars Hill project between 2006 and 2007. Meantime, the state has permitted a 137 MW project for Franklin County, to be built by Alberta's TransCanada.

Near term

The biggest project among the near term possibilities is from Horizon Wind, the wind development subsidiary of Portugal's EDP. Didisheim says an application for a first 350 MW phase of what could eventually be a 850 MW project will be filed by the end of the year. Horizon has been working on this project for some time but faced a transmission hurdle to get it off the ground (Windpower Monthly, April 2007). Didisheim says Horizon appears to have found a short-term fix to a transmission bottleneck getting its wind power out of the northern Aroostook County.

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