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LOOKING SHAKY IN NEW ENGLAND

More than 260 MW of wind is proposed within the next few years in New England, but critical hurdles are already delaying plans for most of the capacity. Wind supporters have long been pinning their hopes on New England, along with Minnesota and the Pacific Northwest, as a region that will help launch the domestic market -- and lagging US technology -- into the next century.

As the industry optimism so palpable in the early nineties fades, wind's ability to take root in New England is indeed a test. Although some in the industry abandoned hopes, strategically, of getting much from the domestic market years ago, regions of high potential remain crucial for a US industry. Perhaps emblematic of the difficulties wind can encounter when entering new regions are those now facing Kenetech Windpower's 210 MW plant, proposed for the remote Boundary Mountains in northern Maine, near the Quebec border. Wind technology is new to the state and relatively untested in its climate and terrain. Some public officials and green groups are unsure of its environmental, economic and power planning benefits and costs; the area -- the most northerly state in New England, wedged between New Hampshire, eastern Canada and the ocean -- is remote and conservative socially.

For two years Kenetech has been laying political ground-work, securing several planning permits. But land use regulators are now baulking at the prospect of a $200 million mega-plant. It would be the largest project of any sort in Maine in ten years, says Kenetech's local representative, Chris Herter. In addition, state planners are more used to facilities such as paper-mills or hydro projects. Wind farms are entirely new. Land-use staff are clearly hesitant. Four issues are unresolved, says Dave Allender at Maine's Land Use Regulatory Commission (LURC). The commission wants more information on whether the state needs more power, on the possibility of maintaining 100 miles of roads built on unstable soils, on bird impacts, and on the plant's ability to weather the sub-Arctic winter, he says. The mountain tops are also preservation zones. Indeed LURC is now suggesting that Kenetech test four or five single turbines for a year before going ahead.

Kenetech, however, is adamant that such a pilot plant would be uneconomic given the need for a 23 mile transmission line. A minimum of about 150 MW, says Herter, is the critical mass that justifies the $10 million power line, to be built in rocky terrain at more than 2700 feet. Kenetech had wanted to start building last summer. "We are not willing to spend two to three million dollars to run electricity into the ground without knowing if we are getting a permit," says Herter.

The conflict is indeed such that the wind proposal became national news on America's public radio network last month. With the expense of a project delay and deadlines for meeting utility contracts for the first 20 MW, Kenetech hopes to convince regulators to approve a zoning change to start construction in September. The project is on the agenda for the third month running at the next land-use meeting on March 16.

Outlook grey but brighter to the west

Elsewhere in the state, Endless Energy of Gloucester, Maine, is still seeking a 15 MW power contract after its 1989 contract with Central Maine Power (CMP) fell through in November (Windpower Monthly, January 1995). Its project using Zond turbines was delayed after a construction deadline was missed when crews found the bedrock was too soft to support the machines. The utility used the opportunity to back out of the contract legally. Getting a new contract will be tough, says Harley Lee of Endless Energy. In fact he sees prospects as generally poor. Central Maine Power, he says, is estimated to have some 200 MW in excess capacity even though it is only a small utility. Yet wind remains as a resource that matches the winter demand for heating homes unusually well.

Not everyone agrees with Lee's somewhat pessimistic view, including four environmental groups backing Kenetech's project in exchange for an agreement including Kenetech contributing $300,000 to land preservation in western Maine as well as $50,000 towards a state wide study on appropriate wind sites. And though the utility proposing to buy most of Kenetech's power says it does not need extra generating capacity -- and the deal may add 30 cents to the average customer's bill -- it wants to know if wind works. "There are these statements that there are oodles of this wind power out there. We don't know if that's true," Jeffrey Tranen of New England Electric System (NEES) told the Boston Globe. "This is an experiment."

The outlook seems brighter two states to the west where a wind plant is planned at Searsburg in Vermont. Green Mountain Power (GMP) hopes to install 6 MW in a project partially funded by the US Department of Energy and the Electric Power Research Institute. GMP has completed extensive resource studies and is currently undertaking bird research, says the utility's Norm Terreri. It will soon file for approval from regional commissioners, he says, and there is no indication of the political pitfalls of the type encountered in Maine. Vermont is known as one of the most environmentally progressive, forward-thinking states. "There are indications of strong regional support," says Terreri. Within a few months, a request for proposals should be issued for a supplier. More than one turbine is likely to be chosen as the aim is to aid technology transfer to utilities, he adds. The Vermont project should be on line sometime in 1996, says the utility's wind consultant, John Zimmerman. He also says the site could see a total of 20 MW installed capacity eventually, although no more than 6 MW addition is yet anticipated.

Eyes on Kenetech

Even so, it is the Kenetech Maine project that is being watched most closely. There are two reasons for the close scrutiny. Its size makes it significant as a project which could open a new market. It is also one of a sizeable backlog of Kenetech projects which the industry has been waiting to see happen for the company. On February 15, for the third month running, Kenetech asked the Maine land use authorities to delay considering a zoning change for the entire 639 turbines. One of the issues is that Kenetech must start building in summer 1995 to meet the power delivery contract deadline. To comply with contracts, Kenetech wants to deliver 10 MW to NEES's New England Power (NEP) and 10 MW to CMP by the start of 1997, 12.5 MW to NEP and just 7.5 MW to CMP by 1998, the entire 20 MW to NEP a year later -- in time for the 1999 tax credit expiration -- and zero the same year to CMP. In effect, CMP is buying just two years of power, notes Herter. Both utilities also have three options of 25 MW that can be exercised six, 12, and 18 months later.

The Conservation Law Foundation supports the project. "It will have minimal impact on the environment and is sited sensitively," says Dan Sosland of the Maine branch. "There's just still disbelief on the part of land commissionersÉ the industry is ready to go. One of the questions is, will the US remain a leader in hardware for it?"

Opposing the project, among others, is bird group National Audubon. Its chief scientist, Jan Beyea, notes the issue is mostly a land use one. The site is the vast Northern Forest, which environmentalists have been working to preserve. He says the size should be capped at 50 MW initially to determine the bird issue before proceeding. More data, too, should be gathered on migratory routes. Beyea's feeling are echoed by Robert Perschel of The Wilderness Society: "This is one of the last remaining areas that is wild and large enough to support lynx, cougar, wolves and golden eagles," he wrote to the Boston Globe in January. "We support wind power. What we object to is siting those projects in the few remaining areas that have the potential to harbour the truly lasting treasures of this country."

Allender of LURC maintains that the mid summer window for building at the mountain site is startlingly short -- just 45 days -- because of icy weather. Kenetech's Herter vehemently disagrees, saying the window is five months from early June to late October and the transmission line is better built when ground is frozen.

Even so, it is apparently unusual that LURC has yet to approve the master plan, which would then be followed by approval of the specifics of each phase. Apart from the uncertainty about the soils and the need for power in the state, a golden eagle pair near the site appears to be one of only two on record in the area. Allender says LURC asked for more information on various matters as long ago as October of 1993. "Many of these issues have still not been addressed to our satisfaction at all," he adds.

The Endless Energy-CMP contract falling through has concerned LURC. "That kind of impressed a lot of us," says Allender. The answer, he says, could be for Kenetech to install a pilot project or provide more evidence to satisfy the commission. Kenetech may ask the commission to review its case with the testimony submitted last year, or the company may decide to re-open the official record on the case to try and address the questions raised. Herter concludes that the commissioners are really struggling with the basic policy question of how to deal with wind power. But he adds that LURC also seems to be asking for the impossible. "The question is, do you allow development and accept reasonable risk, or do you eliminate all risk?"

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