Thursday, June 9, 2011

Showdown or slowdown?

Photo: Unity wind crew working on the Fox Islands Wind/NREL sound study last year.

I was at the NEWEEP wind siting conference Tuesday, taking a break from anemometer work, and had the chance to ask Maine Wind Industry Initiative boss Paul Williamson when the inevitable showdown with Governor LePage would occur.

His response was diplomatic, and he neatly avoided any kind of hot-button quote.

I wasn't trying to trap the guy. I've been fascinated by our Governor's interesting approach to complex energy problems in general, and honestly wondered when the wind industry would get around to this "come to mother" discussion with the Governor.

Background: Our governor came into office with a good deal of support from the Tea Party, which itself is supported directly by the oil industry, particularly the billionaires Koch.

However, Maine has no oil.

Maine does have wind, quite a bit of it, and a fairly significant effort is underway to tap this excellent resource. Wind power in general is relatively popular in the state, and regularly polls at eighty percent or more, according to NRCM. Wind power is delivering a very good deal of internal investment, all subject to property taxes, which is helping out with the road and schools budgets in dozens of Maine towns. Maine wind power can be produced cheaply, at prices as low as 5 ¢/KWH, and it can be integrated into the grid supply quite well. As a result, we gain energy independence and reduce greenhouse gas and acid rain and other pollution. There have been noise problems and siting problems that deserve regulation, and a vocal minority campaigns against it, but in general the development of Maine's wind resource, including offshore wind, is going ahead.

What this means is, there are hundreds of wind power-related jobs in Maine already, billions of dollars of investment, and millions of dollars of tax income to towns. No reasonable politician of any stripe is going to successfully confront that kind of economic and political power head on. And if you were to try any head-on attack, you'd be even more unreasonable not to expect a major backlash, just as soon as your opponents could get themselves organized.

So some kind of showdown was inevitable. I was surprised it didn't come earlier. I wanted to know why it hadn't happened already, so I asked my question. To be honest, I was expecting to hear, or hear it intimated, that discussions had occurred behind closed doors and an live-and-let-live accommodation had been worked out. Although the Governor came into office with his six-guns blazing against wind power, he recently appointed a pragmatist, Winslow Republican Kenneth C. Fletcher, as Director of the Governor's Office of Energy Independence, the state's "Energy Czar."

I didn't expect Paul to say so outright but I expected to able to read between the lines that some accommodation had been achieved.

Instead of hinting at some quiet deal, he dodged. I went away wondering what was going on. If, after all these months in office, the Maine wind industry had not yet met with the Governor or his staff, well, that was surprising to me.

I was even more surprised then, only a few hours after asking my question of Mr. Williamson, and hearing him so neatly dodge it, to see his name plastered all over my morning newspaper and reported on the radio and TV.

I guess I now know what was going on.

I still don't believe the Governor has deliberately courted controversy here. It's just the learning curve. In particular, it took an extraordinarily long time to fill the Energy Czar position, nearly five months. I made a few recommendations and sent a couple of names up to the Governor's staff myself, because I was keen to get someone pragmatic in place. I would expect that Mr. Fletcher will soon make himself busy around the state promoting Maine energy of all kinds.

Which is good, because we are finding out more and more about this resource every week and month that goes by. Between myself and Paul Villeneuve of the University of Maine, the two public-domain anemometrists in the state, we now have data, or will soon get data, from around twenty anemometer sites. We're able to predict the power production and cost-effectiveness of a turbine on any onshore site in Maine with fair accuracy, and we can also explain quite a bit more about turbine noise than previously was possible.

If Mainers want cheap, sustainable, locally-produced energy, we can produce it. Not without some noise and visual impacts, but with a whole lot less impacts than mountaintop removal coal mining, or deep sea oil drilling. We can use it for electricity, to be sure, but we can also heat our homes with it, and use it to charge electric vehicles.

And many more wind power dollars remain in state than do oil dollars. In fact, if Mr. Willamson has his druthers, Maine would become a hub of wind power manufacturing.

As a technologist and engineer, I'm a great fan of manufacturing jobs.

All this is assuming we can get together with our Governor and talk about it.

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