EASTBROOK — Representatives from Longroad Energy Partners made the rounds in Eastbrook and Osborn last week to discuss their proposal for a $140-million, 22-wind turbine project involving four Hancock County towns.
The plans are a revival of a 2015 project, Weaver Wind, which the company pulled after the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife raised concerns regarding a lack of data regarding potential fatalities of migratory birds.
“We have spent years collecting information about what’s going on using radar technology to track bird migration during the spring and fall,” said Matt Kearns, chief development officer at Longroad.
Eight of the proposed turbines would be located in Eastbrook and 14 in Osborn. Maintenance and operations would be conducted in Aurora and an existing substation in Township 16 would be upgraded to handle the increased capacity from the project.
Kearns said the company plans to submit an application to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) by early November and to start construction next year if permits are approved.
In January, Governor Paul LePage issued an executive order banning wind projects in western and coastal Maine until a commission could report on the impact of wind projects in the state.
Kearns said the order has not affected the company’s plans.
“DEP is processing permits as normal,” said Kearns, adding that he was told by the department that “it’s business as usual.”
“There is no official moratorium,” said Mark Bergeron, director of the DEP’s Bureau of Land Resources.
“The executive order … doesn’t say we can’t accept applications or process them.”
The department is doing just that. One application, for a small project in Roxbury, was submitted this summer. Review takes around six months.
“When it comes to a decision [on issuing permits] we’ll have to see” where the executive order stands, said Bergeron.
As part of the process, there also will be a “refresh” of tax agreements and building permits in Eastbrook, which created wind bylaws in 2011, Kearns said. Osborn delegates land use planning to the state’s Land Use Planning Commission, which also will review the project.
If approved, the turbines would be some of the state’s largest, measuring 591 feet from ground to blade tip. With a combined maximum capacity totaling 72.6 megawatts, the project would boost Maine’s total wind generating power around 7 percent.
The wind isn’t always blowing, but recent technological innovations — taller towers with longer, more efficient blades — are increasing the electrical output of wind turbines. Wind farms in Maine operated between 21 and 37 percent capacity in 2016, according to federal data.
Kearns put Bull Hill at the higher end of the spectrum, near 38 percent capacity, due to what he said were more consistent breezes year-round.
Modeling suggests Weaver Wind will be about the same, Kearns said. At that level, turbines would generate enough electricity to provide energy for around 40,000 homes each year.
Seventy-five percent of Maine’s net electricity generation came from renewable energy sources (wood, hydro and wind) in 2017, including 20 percent from wind, according to the U.S. Energy Information Association. The state leads New England in wind power, with Maine turbines accounting for two-thirds of the region’s generation last year.
There’s no guarantee the power would be sold in state, but the company has submitted a proposal to the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to sell energy into the grid at a little less than 5 cents per kilowatt hour.
“This is the lowest price available in New England for renewable energy today,” Kearns said. “We hope we get selected. We think it’s competitive.”
Longroad also has put bids into Connecticut and Rhode Island, Kearns said, and would consider selling to a corporation if its bid is not accepted by the PUC. If the 5 cent bid is accepted, the turbines would generate $12 million in annual revenue (if they are as efficient as predicted).
Some residents expressed concern about the noise level.
“This is a quieter wind turbine than any of the others out here so far,” said consultant Scott Bodwell. The blades are serrated, meaning they don’t have to spin as fast.
Bodwell’s models assume all Weaver Wind towers going at full speed and a “winter landscape,” with sound reflecting fully off nearby water bodies. The predictions show noise levels between 51 and 55 decibels standing underneath the tower and between 30 and 35 two miles out. The latter is about the noise level of a library or a quiet office. Most homes are around two miles from the towers.
Winds are highest in fall and winter, said Bodwell, which is when turbines will be loudest but fewer residents are outside. “I don’t think it’ll ever be as loud as they show it.”
As for the birds, MDIFW “still has concerns” that Longroad is working to mitigate, said Brooke Barnes, an environmental consultant working with Longroad.
The towers will have radar-activated lighting, lights that come on only when there is air traffic in the area, to minimize attraction to birds. MDIFW will continue to make recommendations during the permitting process, said Kearns.
“We’re trying to understand collectively what’s going on.”
Longroad officials were eager to tout the project’s potential community benefits. Apart from construction jobs (the company anticipates 135), there will likely be “four or five” permanent positions created, Kearns said. There is also the state-mandated $4,000 per turbine fee paid annually for 20 years to each host town.
This would amount to $56,000 each year to Osborn and $32,000 to Eastbrook for 20 years. The company said it also plans to donate to organizations in town, including $230,000 to the group Friends of Lower and Middle Lead Mountain Ponds toward dam restoration and the installation of a fish passage.
In Eastbrook on Sept. 25, residents raised a few concerns but seemed excited overall.
“I’m all for clean energy,” said Dennis King, who has lived on Lower Lead Pond for 25 years.
“It has to come from somewhere,” said King, adding that he and his wife can see turbines from other wind projects from their home “and we don’t have any noise issues. We can see three turbines and it’s fine.”
Kearns said he had been asked whether the company planned to continue expanding in the region.
“That’s not in our view finder,” he said.
Kearns said Weaver Wind likely would be the one of last wind farms built in the area until there are large-scale grid upgrades, because transmission lines could not handle much more capacity.
“The transmission system in New England is very, very constrained,” Kearns said. “With the addition of Weaver there won’t be room for additional wind projects for many, many years in this area.”