Maine’s future of community-wind projects

Sue Jones of the Maine Wind Working Group says the potential of community-wind projects is great

By Ramona du Houx

March 21st, 2010

Sue Jones- coordinator of the Maine Working Group {photo du Houx}
Sue Jones- coordinator of the Maine Working Group {photo du Houx}
Farming is a labor of love in Maine, because it’s an extremely hard way to make a living. More farmers have been utilizing innovative ways to improve their incomes. Next year in Aroostook County, the first farmer-owned community-wind project, by Community Generation Partners, hopes to begin construction.

“Community wind is an economic development tool for farmers. It will augment their incomes by creating a new source of income. This could be one way they can continue to farm from generation to generation,” said Sue Jones of Community Generation Partners. “So much of our farmlands in Maine have been lost, along with a wealth of knowledge. This could be one way to help preserve a cherished way of life. Most of our farmers are multigenerational farmers, pressuring opportunities for future generations to continue to do what they love.”

Jones has been advocating for community wind in Maine for over seven years. Jones worked for one of Maine’s largest environment groups, where she helped with policy issues, was a negotiator, and has successfully led legislative campaigns. She’s a trained lawyer and the coordinator of the Maine Wind Working Group, established in 2008.

The focus of MWWG is to help grow Maine’s wind-energy business sector by educating the public on wind-energy technology and products, economics, policies, prospects, and challenges. MWWG activities include public education and technical outreach, targeted stakeholder outreach, hosting wind workshops, and developing state-specific literature. Jones organized the Wind Energy Conference in Augusta last fall. She is troubled by the recent negative trend in Maine’s news about wind energy.

“I really think wind turbines are beautiful. I understand not everyone does, but I always say if you have doubts go visit a turbine. They are accessible, unlike so many other forms of energy generators,” said Jones. “Also, in contrast to other forms of generation, wind turbines are projected to last 20 to 30 years. At the end of that lifespan, they could be refitted or taken down. Nuclear power can’t be decommissioned with such ease. The best way forward is always to involve the community.”

That’s what Jones believes in with a passion.

“Local communities and local investors are increasingly interested in co-owning wind-energy projects. By involving members and leaders within a community in a project, everyone sees the benefits and risks involved. It’s a great way to work towards energy independence for Maine. It can complement corporate-owned wind projects. Working towards a future where we will be able to have wind projects owned locally, built by Maine companies, erected by Maine companies, that reduce our dependence on foreign oil, is exciting. For me to be able to help the future of farming in the state for generations to come because of community-wind projects would be the icing on the cake,” said Jones.

Years of dedication and research have gone into Jones’s projects. She chose what is considered in the industry to be one of the best community-wind cooperative projects in America for a template, Minwind.

“Minwind, out of Minnesota, is a cooperative business model that I use with my partner to organize farmers and other large landowners. We work together collaboratively to put together a project,” said Jones. “The community-wind projects we help develop are considered merchant projects, which means the energy is sold directly to the grid. Everyone or group has their own needs. Because each group has their own needs and desires in how they want to see the project move forward we tailor our efforts to fulfill what they want.”

The Minwind projects are a series of nine farmer-owned wind projects. All of the Minwind
projects were based around the idea that local ownership is central to maximizing local benefits, and the projects are intended to generate new income for farmers and benefit the local community’s economy.

The first two projects were completed in the fall of 2002, and each consists of two NEG Micon 950 kW turbines. Sixty-six investors from the region bought up all the available shares in both companies in 12 days. Some Minwind projects were awarded $178,201 in USDA Farm Bill Section 9006 grant funds for expenses, including engineering, transmission, equipment, and construction.

“Community wind has been named a Best Practice for farmers by the USDA. We work with the USDA, state and local government,” said Jones.

Since the Minwind turbines went online, there has been increased interest from area farmers and other potential investors. Minwind has become a model for farmers to take advantage of economies of scale in developing wind and to promote farmer-owned enterprises, by using local materials and contractors. According to Jones, the same could happen in Maine.

“There is a real place in Maine for community wind. It means local jobs and reduced electricity rates over time. We have great wind resources, in many locations. It’s a strong economic tool for communities that have adequate wind speeds,” she said.

She saw how it transformed Germany.

“When I traveled out into the countryside to see what Germany had done with community wind, I totally got it. There were five to seven turbines over every other hill or knoll, and all were totally integrated into the landscape. I could see Maine having a similar distributed network,” said Jones. “These smaller projects were owned by everyday people, doctors, dentists, teachers, farmers. I realized this was a great model. It allows everyday people to be a part of something transformative.

Maine needs to do some catching up.

Last year the governor, working with the Legislature, passed a community-energy law that will support community wind and other energy technologies.  The Baldacci administration  is working to make sure the application process for community-wind projects is streamlined and more affordable than it currently is
Last year the governor, working with the Legislature, passed a community-energy law that will support community wind and other energy technologies. The Baldacci administration is working to make sure the application process for community-wind projects is streamlined and more affordable than it currently is

“It’s already taking off across America, and Europe is years ahead. Community wind really got going in Denmark; there they have models in municipal wind ownership, public/private partnerships, cooperatives, and others,” said Jones. “Iowa, Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, Texas, Nebraska, and Michigan have a number of community-wind projects. There are 70 towns in Massachusetts that are currently testing their wind potential. And they have far less of a wind source than Maine. If you drive to Boston on I-95, you’ll see wind towers in urban areas, some near Logan airport.”
Jones’s vision of bringing community wind to Maine started six years ago, when she was invited to go with the Maine International Trade Center to Germany, to see how they transformed their economy, from being reliant on coal to using alternative energy resources and gasified coal. Economic experts have stated that Germany fared better than other European nations during the economic recession because of their government’s focus and commitment to growing a green-energy economy.

“They transformed their economy by replacing coal-fired plants with renewable-energy technologies, with efficient planning, and a government framework that supported the transition. Coal became gasified, wind projects sprang up across the country, solar was being implemented, and huge amounts of resources were invested in research and development to grow their capacity and knowledge base,” said Jones.
Maine has steadily been transforming the state to become a green-energy exporter. The state already produces the most wind energy in New England. Research at the University of Maine is progressing wind technologies for offshore and land-based windmills. Jones said Germany took similar steps.

“Germany created a wind cluster. It brought together and supported the different entities that can help grow the entire industry. Developers, manufacturers, universities doing R&D came together to find comparable and mutually synergistic opportunities. Likewise, there has been a lot done creating a wind cluster in Maine. It’s incredibly exciting, seeing this work going on, but much more needs to be done for community wind. It needs to be a bigger part of that cluster,” said Jones.