"Buy Wind Power, It’s a Breeze"

by Heather Rae (8/1/07)

The Natural Resource Council of Maine (NRCM) sponsored a tour of the Mars Hill wind farm this past Saturday. I went along to represent Maine Interfaith Power & Light (MeIPL) and to talk about Wind Watts, the renewable energy certificates (RECs) generated by the 28 turbine, 42MW project. MeIPL is the primary reseller of RECs from Mars Hill.

A group of about 30 made the trek by bus to the Big Rock Ski Area which sits below the project at the Canadian border. (The Boston Globe covered the trip.) We heard from a number of people involved in bringing the project to life. Dave Cowan, VP of Environmental Affairs for UPC Wind Management, the developer of Mars Hill, answered questions including the usual ones about bird kill and noise. Pat DeFillip, Project Manager for Reed & Reed which constructed the project — with Maine labor — showed pictures of the construction in all its phases. Ryan Fonbuena, a UPC technical manager originally from California, enlivened the crowd with a broad youthful smile, considerable technical knowledge, and a necklace of white shells (he’s been working on a Hawaii project as well).

The Mars Hill 1.5MW GE wind turbines are awesome by its most positive definition: breathtaking, formidable, stunning, wondrous, majestic. Try as I might, I cannot see them in any other way.

We heard from people in the community: a landowner who has multiple turbines on his property and wants to retail products oriented around the wind farm; a real estate agent who sees no decline in property values as a result of the wind farm; proprietors of a hotel; the town manager; the manager of Big Rock Ski Area. All were open and frank about the reasons for the complaints from a few vocal members of the community. Our group repeatedly asked, “is that the noise they don’t like?” expressing concern for the community and trying to get their heads around the complaints. One resident said he believes the opposition to the turbines is one of aesthetics and that leads to all the other complaints…which, he believes, are dying down. He also noted that he received his property tax bill; it’s $200 lower because of the money put into the town by the project.

At the end of a long day, as a thunderstorm moved in, I spoke about Wind Watts. I’m not fully comfortable with RECs for the many reasons that others like Richard Stuebi have written in this blog. However, Wind Watts I can pitch with equanimity, particularly after talking about how the Interfaith Power & Light organization came into being and why it exists: it’s a moral calling to support the planet and people with clean energy. It’s a faith-based response to climate change. Here’s this wondrous project, I could say with a swoop of the arm across the ridgeline and slowly spinning turbines. You’ve met the construction company and the developers, I could say, looking right at Ryan Fonbuena of UPC. You’ve heard what it means to the community, catching the sparkling and proud eye of the Big Rock Ski Area manager. Buy these RECs and you will support this project and encourage others like it.

I stumble in talking about RECs when they become entangled with carbon offsets, as if buying RECs to offset carbon emissions is the only reason to buy them. So I didn’t go there. I didn’t have to. The first question from the group was, ‘isn’t buying RECs simply a way for some people to go about their lives without making any changes, so they don’t have to feel guilty?’ This business of assuaging climate change guilt with RECS (like the business of bird kill and noise) is mass media at work. After a brief group chuckle around guilt, Dylan Voorhees, Energy Project Director for NRCM, explained the whole black electron, green electron, green attribute/REC thinking. I’ve been hearing this explanation for years and I’ll buy into it — so long as new wind is more expensive to build than the alternatives. Before carbon became all the rage, I could talk about RECs for what they are: financial mechanisms to encourage development of clean energy. To jump on the carbon offset marketing bandwagon for RECs is, I believe, limiting. And darn confusing.

Heather Rae, a contributor to cleantechblog.com, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine and serves on the board of Maine Interfaith Power & Light. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she begins renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.

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