A study specific to Maine will help, but the process should be transparent, with no moratorium on new projects.
by Rachel Bouvier, an environmental economist and owner of rbouvier consulting, specializing in environmental and natural resource issues.
Portland Press Herald op-ed
Gov. LePage’s recent announcement of a moratorium on wind farms in certain areas of the state, as well as the establishment of a commission to study the effects of wind farms on tourism and migratory birds, has drawn both condemnation and praise.
As an environmental economist, I am in favor of increased wind power in the state. Renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and, in certain circumstances, hydropower, will help with the transition away from fossil fuel-based energy that our state and country so badly need. Furthermore, wind power provides well-paying jobs in construction in primarily rural areas of the state, as well as property taxes, the potential for income for rural landowners, and other tangible benefits to host communities.
However, concerns about large-scale wind farm development include potential negative impacts on nearby residents, tourism and wildlife. Questions include:
• Do wind farms enhance or detract from tourism? Answer: It depends on the context. Some studies have found that proposed wind farms affect potential demand for tourism, but those studies deal with hypothetical situations, not actual ones. A recent study in Scotland found that there was no correlation between existing wind farms and tourism-related employment. Other case studies have shown that wind farms can actually be a boon to tourism, if local tourism agencies market them as a tourist attraction.
More work needs to be done on looking at the effect of actual, operating wind farms on tourism in different contexts. In any case, the concern about conflicts between wind farms and tourism can be mitigated by proper planning and siting.
• Do wind farms have a significant impact on migratory birds? The answer here depends on what you consider significant, and again, it depends on the context. Wind turbines in migratory corridors have been linked to avian mortality, and those deaths are increasing as wind power generation itself increases. Still, some studies suggest that wind power-related avian deaths are less than those associated with other forms of energy, and much less than those associated with the average house cat.
However, that does not mean we should brush those concerns away lightly. New technologies in turbine and blade design, as well as proper modeling and siting procedures – and simply shutting down generation during peak migration – should mitigate this concern.
• Do wind farms increase or decrease property values or property taxes? Evidence shows that large-scale wind development in residential areas does have a negative impact on the value of homes in direct proximity (much like any other energy-related infrastructure), and that this effect declines as distance from the wind farm increases.
However, rural communities that are host to a turbine can see an increase in the tax base, as the potential for income from the land is realized. There also is evidence that the added property tax revenue from a wind farm can reduce a town’s overall property tax rate. Again, these concerns can be mitigated by proper planning and siting.
In other words, evidence abounds on both sides of the debate, and is context-specific. I agree that these issues need to be systematically studied in a Maine-specific context. However, such a study (or studies) need to be done in an open, transparent manner. Meetings need to be open to the public. The data, analysis and conclusions need to be easily accessible and replicable.
The commission that the governor proposed meets none of these requirements (although the governor backpedaled during a recent Maine Public radio appearance on whether his proposed commission will be exempt from the Freedom of Access Act, despite the clarity of the executive order establishing it).
There is no need for a moratorium on wind farm development while such a study is being commissioned (if one is even legal). Such a move only heightens the widespread suspicion that the governor is hostile to any form of renewable energy (other than hydro). The timing of his announcement, coming the day before the announcement of the winner of a clean energy request for proposals in Massachusetts, is highly suspect.
Finally, there is something inconsistent about someone who professes concern for migratory birds but not migratory fish (the negative effect of hydroelectric dams on migratory fish is well-established). It is also disingenuous to profess concern for the natural assets on which our tourism industry depends but still support offshore drilling, which has a much greater capacity to harm the natural assets on which our fisheries and ocean-based economy depend.