Releasing annual generation figures and percentages for its Maine projects for the first time in the company’s history, First Wind spokesman John Lamontagne expressed confidence that First Wind’s wind-to-energy sites were proving their worth environmentally and economically.
"Bottom line: these projects are generating power that is powering homes and businesses in Maine and New England," Lamontagne said in a statement. "Wind power is no longer a new phenomenon. It’s becoming a significant part of the Maine energy landscape. And, as you know, it’s doing that without burning fossil fuels that require mining or fracking, without emitting any pollutants, without using water and it is completely renewable" as a source of energy.
Kevin Gurall, president of the group Partnership for the Preservation of the Downeast Lakes Watershed, which recently declared victory when the Land Use Regulation Commission rejected First Wind’s proposed Bowers Mountain project, dismissed most of First Wind’s claims as misleading, if not mistaken.
"As has been the case in many instances, First Wind’s comments and their numbers are very misleading," Gurall said Saturday. "They paint a picture that misleads the general public. They constantly refer to an equivalent of Maine households when in fact, a very small amount of their electricity is consumed here in Maine."
According to the figures Lamontagne released, the 57-megawatt Stetson I wind power facility generated about 154,000 megawatts in 2011, or about 421 megawatts per 24-hour day. First Wind’s Mars Hill site generated about 127,500 megawatts of electricity, or an average of 349 megawatts per day. The Stetson II site produced 59,700 megawatts.
Full-year figures for the largest single First Wind site in Maine, the 60-megawatt Rollins Mountain project on ridgelines in Burlington, Lee, Lincoln and Winn, are not yet available. The project came online in July 2011. It generated 59,000 megawatts, the First Wind report states.
Lamontagne cautioned that per-day electrical generation averages could be misleading. Turbines have down time for inspection, repair and maintenance â€• and situations where the wind can reasonably be expected to blow constantly are pretty rare, he said.
According to First Wind estimates, the four projects powered roughly the equivalent of 64,000 Maine homes and helped prevent the creation or burning of close to a million tons of pollutants and oil in 2011. Those estimates are based on U.S. Department of Energy data and standards, Lamontagne said.
The debate over wind power in Maine is almost as inexhaustible as wind itself, and has been since the Mars Hill project, the state’s first wind farm, went online in March 2007. Since then, Maine has become New England’s largest wind-to-electricity producing state.
Wind power critics have said that projects such as First Wind’s benefit from many false assumptions about the environmental soundness and economic need for wind energy. Maine’s industrial wind sites are unnecessary because they generate a fraction of Maine’s total capacity and Mainers only use a fraction of that capacity, according to friendsofmainesmountains.org, the website representing a coalition of groups that have opposed First Wind’s developments in Maine.
Critics further reject proponents’ claims about wind energy saving pollutants from the environment as false, at least in Maine. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Maine is ranked the seventh-lowest state in the union for its carbon emissions from electricity generation.
"When you include hydroelectric dams as renewable energy, Maine has the single-highest percentage of renewable energy in its portfolio of any state in the country," Gurall said.
Critics say that the most optimistic wind-energy scenario, which would place about 2,700 megawatts worth of wind turbines in Maine, would have the industry capturing no more than 5 percent of New England’s electricity needs. This percentage isn’t worth the spoilage of the beauty of the state ridges and mountains marred by 400-foot-tall turbines each spaced about a quarter-mile apart and therefore, according to their estimates, covering about 300 miles, they said.
"One of the things that we constantly have to assess here, is what is the impact of any industry on Maine’s largest industry, which is tourism," said Gurall, who quoted statistics that show that tourism creates more than 170,000 jobs in Maine.
"Maine’s No. 1 asset is its quality of place. It’s an asset that cannot be duplicated anywhere on the east coast. The site of twirling 400-foot turbines with flashing red anti-aircraft lights dramatically impacts the quality of place that people come here for," Gurall added.
Lamontagne disagreed, saying that wind energy is coexisting well with the environment while bolstering the economies of the towns in which it resides by tens of millions of dollars.
Oakfield, for example, which will be home to a 50-turbine First Wind project that was issued a permit last month, will get close to $12 million in new buildings, equipment and other benefits, such as scholarship funds, thanks to project tax funds and tax breaks, he said.
"Wind energy is admittedly still a small part of the energy mix in Maine and New England but I think what these numbers show is that it is a growing part of that mix, and I think that this is a positive part of that mix," Lamontagne said.