January 27, 2018, by Jim Efstathiou Jr.
When Maine Governor Paul LePage issued a moratorium on new wind farms, he cited a need to protect the state’s tourism industry. It may be a solution in search of a problem.
The Republican’s order, issued Wednesday, slams the brakes on an industry that’s generated thousands of jobs as Maine has become New England’s top wind generator. Yet even LePage’s top energy adviser said it’s unclear whether turbines have had any impact on tourism.
“I don’t know that there’s any hard evidence,” Steven McGrath, director of the Governor’s Energy Office, said in an interview. “We’ve got the folks in western Maine saying that it would.”
LePage’s freeze on new projects adds to the list of challenges clean-energy developers are facing across the U.S. They include the 30 percent tariffs on imported solar panels President Donald Trump announced Tuesday and his decision last year to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement, a move that may lift fossil fuels at the expense of renewables.
Wind energy has boomed in Maine as developers have added enough turbines over the last two years to double the state’s capacity to 900 megawatts, according to the American Wind Energy Association. That’s more than all other New England states combined and enough to rival a nuclear reactor.
Maine tourism, meanwhile, grew for the fifth consecutive year in 2017, according to LePage and a report from the state’s tourism office. The industry pulled in almost $6 billion in 2016, the most recent year for which numbers are available.
Wind developers and environmental groups denounced LePage’s decision, saying it threatens billions of dollars in new investment and hampers efforts to fight global warming. The American Wind Energy Association, a Washington-based trade group, called the move “an affront to private property rights and Mainers seeking good jobs.”
The governor, however, said Maine should consider the impact of wind farms before building more. His order — which excludes offshore projects and certain inland areas — established a commission to study the issue. LePage didn’t set a deadline for the commission to make recommendations.
“We cannot afford to damage our natural assets in ways that would deter visitors from returning to Maine,” LePage said in a statement. “While out-of-state interests are eager to exploit our western mountains in order to serve their political agendas, we must act judiciously to protect our natural beauty.”
While some of Maine’s wind power is exported, about 20 percent of the state’s electricity came from wind during 2017, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The controversy echoes other energy battles in the region, which include the proposed Northern Pass transmission line to deliver hydroelectric power from Canada and attempts to build natural gas pipelines in New York and Massachusetts, said Kit Konolige, a New York-based analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence.
“Another power battle in New England,” Konolige said. “Essentially all new wind built in Maine would go south to the load centers, so a NIMBY response is understandable.”
LePage’s predecessor, Democrat John Baldacci, signed a law in 2008 calling for the state to increase its wind energy capacity to 3,000 megawatts by 2020, designating certain areas for projects. LePage can’t simply ignore that law, said Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association.
“The governor doesn’t just get to decide ‘I only want wind in eastern or western Maine,”’ Payne said. “I fail to see the legal authority.”