by Misty Edgecomb
The wind farm proposed to crown Mars Hill Mountain in Aroostook County has received approval from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. Construction now awaits a vote in Congress on a tax credit bill that would provide needed financing.
But at the state level Tuesday afternoon, DEP Commissioner Dawn Gallagher announced that the 30-turbine project, designed to produce 50 megawatts of electricity, had been given the building permit it needs to move forward.
“Maine is taking a significant step to ease our over-reliance on fossil fuels for electrical generation,” she said in a statement released Tuesday.
Developer Evergreen Wind Power LLC had originally planned to start construction this spring, and begin producing electricity by November.
“That’s exciting,” Pete Didisheim of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, one of the project’s biggest advocates, said when he heard the news Tuesday.
Every wind project increases the potential for dirtier coal- and oil-fired energy generators to scale back or even shut down, he said.
The council has previously called for developing wind projects to meet 10 percent of Maine’s power need by 2010. When the Mars Hill project goes online, a quarter of that goal will have been met, he said.
“We hope that this will open the door to other projects in Aroostook and Washington counties to bring significant economic development to rural areas while still developing clean, renewable energy,” Didisheim said.
However, the Mars Hill project hinges on a federal tax credit that must be passed before $68 million in financing can be completed.
Peter Gish of Evergreen’s parent company, UPC Wind Partners LLC, was not available for comment Tuesday, but he said last month that time is running out. If the financing isn’t resolved soon, construction may have to be delayed.
The U.S. Senate approved the credit in early May, with both Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins lending their support.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, too, has expressed support for the wind project, and general support for renewable energy. However, Michaud has not said officially how he will vote when this particular tax credit, attached to a trade bill, comes before the House.
Until recently, worries about the windmills’s impact on birds and bats in the area had also held up the permit’s approval. Maine Audubon and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife had raised concerns that Evergreen had not sufficiently studied the issue.
But DEP ultimately decided to approve the permit with conditions.
“Although there is no evidence to suggest that the project will interfere with bird migration, DEP is requiring post-construction monitoring to ensure minimum environmental impact,” DEP’s statement said.
No one at DEP was available to provide further details Tuesday afternoon. However, staff members have previously said conditions would mirror suggestions made by DIF&W that Evergreen conduct a study of the wind turbines’s impact on birds and bats once the facility starts generating electricity, and immediately resolve any problems that arise.