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New England Interview: Angus King, Former Governor of Maine and Co-Founder of Independence Wind

New England Interview: Angus King, Former Governor of Maine and Co-Founder of Independence Wind

Date: 12/13/2009

Location: ME

Angus King, former governor of Maine (1995-2003, Independent), has taken the unusual step of becoming a wind power developer after completing his terms in office. Drawing on his diverse past (lawyer, U.S. Senate staffer, hydroelectric and biomass power plant developer, energy efficiency entrepreneur, PBS-radio and TV commentator, and teacher), Governor King co-founded a wind development company in early 2007. Independence Wind was formed with Robert Gardiner, a former director of Maine's Bureau of Public Lands and former Maine Advocacy Center Director for the Conservation Law Foundation.

Independence Wind is actively working on developing a commercial wind farm in Western Maine.

Q. As Maine's governor, what was your perspective on the role of wind power in Maine?

A. When I was governor, there was virtually no commercial-scale wind development in Maine, only residential-scale. As governor, I had an interest in Maine's energy situation, and our need for more energy options. My interest in wind as a serious energy resource started in the 1970s when I first read of it in the Whole Earth Catalog. On a professional level, though, my interest in wind began only last year.

As governor, I supported the development of natural gas pipelines through Maine, which provided an additional energy resource. I had come out of the alternative energy field, and I was concerned about the long-term cost of energy and long-term price stability and felt that increasing our supply options made a lot of sense. Historically, Maine got energy from hydro, nuclear, and some fossil fuel resources. The nuclear plant is now closed, which makes Maine unhealthily dependent on natural gas for about 60% of our electricity... we're vulnerable on supply and price. Aside from hydro, wind is the only renewable resource for which you can offer a fixed price.

Q. You have a background in both renewable energy and energy efficiency. As part of a broad energy policy, what do you see as the relative roles of these alternatives?

A. The older I get, the more I realize that there is no single solution — most problems need to be solved through a combination of solutions. Clearly, conservation and efficiency have important roles. In the early 1990s, I spent 5 years in the energy efficiency business and saw that there was still much we can do to use less energy. I also realized that there is a finite limit in terms of what is feasible, what makes sense. For example, once you retrofit lighting, you can't easily go back and do it over and again. So, while there is clearly a continuing role for energy efficiency, it is only part of the answer. And even with it, we will probably still see a growing demand. Therefore, we must talk about energy supply.

In terms of economics, energy security, and the environment, we need to talk about non-fossil-fuel-based supply: wind, hydro, or nuclear. At this point, there are no plans for new nuclear power plants in Maine, leaving wind and hydro on the table. Having been in the hydro business, I know that there is very limited untapped hydro potential in Maine. That leaves wind. Wind can never become 100% of our energy supply unless better energy storage technology is developed, but it can certainly be 10% to 20% of the mix if we have baseload plants to fill in the gaps. It is significant that the high wind periods in Maine are in the wintertime, coinciding with high demand for fossil fuels and electricity. Until a few years ago, Maine's utilities were winter-peaking, and even now, there is still heavy demand in the winter, so wind is a nice fit for Maine. I don't see wind energy as a panacea, but I do see it as a significant part of the solution with tremendous environmental benefits.

Q. Looking ahead 10 to 15 years, how much wind power do you expect to see in Maine?

A. Maine has a total average demand of about 2,200 megawatts (MW). For wind to contribute a 10% share in the near-term — at a 35% capacity factor, that's 300 to 600 MW of capacity — is not unreasonable. Another big issue is the technology of offshore wind. The geography of Maine's coast makes offshore wind a challenge, but if and when technology is developed for deeper-water offshore wind, there is huge potential. Offshore wind in Maine could generate thousands of megawatts.

Q. Do you see an opportunity for an increase in jobs in Maine connected with wind?

A. There are three levels of jobs connected to the wind industry. The number of construction jobs associated with wind development is not inconsiderable. Between riggers, bulldozer operators, etc., I have seen estimates of six jobs per tower. There will also be operations and maintenance jobs. These will be fewer, probably one job per 20 MW. Most important, increasing wind development could stabilize electricity rates, especially in an area where most of the power comes from fossil fuels. This would provide a long-term advantage for economic development and create sustained job growth.

In the beginning of the natural gas boom, I met with the New England Governors on the subject of electricity generation. I remember voicing concerns about going from no natural gas to being over-dependent. It's both a security and a price risk. I was recently in Singapore, which gets all of its drinking water from Malaysia via a pipeline. Some years ago, they recognized that this wasn't a good idea and invested in desalination and reverse-osmosis plants and now they're virtually water-independent. We need to do the same — and have alternative options to a costly and volatile fuel source.

Q. We've seen that any electricity generation project will have some undesirable impacts. How do you view wind power's impacts within a larger context?

A. The only real impact I have discerned is visual impact. When I visited the Mars Hill site, they experienced narrowly defined issues with noise. But you can avoid noise issues by siting a project a sufficient distance away from houses and the residents. At Mars Hill, for example, there are a few houses that are particularly close and downwind that appear to have sound issues, but in general, noise impacts from wind generation can be managed. There can be noise problems if you're too close, but they drop off rapidly as the distance increases; it's all about the setbacks. Studies regarding bird impacts conducted around the country show that wind power has a modest effect on birds and that their impact on birds is less serious than we initially thought. So a tolerance for changes in people's views is the primary issue with wind. I have met an amazing number of people who have traveled, seen lots of windmills, and think they are beautiful. It is clearly a subjective judgment.

If visual impacts are the worst thing we have to deal with in order to make a dent in climate change and fossil-fuel dependency, we need to realize that it could be a lot worse. I used to work on biomass development, but with biomass, you are still burning something. You need a tall smokestack. Your trucks transporting your fuel are emitting CO2. Wind has a very short list of negatives compared to other alternatives.

Q. What inspired you to go into wind development after leaving office?

A. My friend Rob Gardiner and I had been talking about going into wind development for more than a year. There are three main reasons. First of all, it is an interesting business opportunity that will hopefully be profitable. I enjoy business, and energy is a business that I know. Second, this endeavor has important long-term benefits for Maine in stabilizing electricity prices and decreasing the state's dependence on volatile fossil fuel supplies and prices. Last, I like the idea of trying to DO something about climate change. This is an opportunity to try to solve, rather than just talk about solving, problems. My feeling about Maine is that we have to take advantage of the assets that we have. There are a lot of things we don't have, but we do have wind, we have the Gulf of Maine, water supply, and forests. We need to play with the hand we were dealt, work with the assets that we have, and Maine has the most wind potential in New England.

Q. How has the transition from governor to wind developer gone so far? How does being ex-governor help or hinder your efforts?

A. I was already 4 years out of office before starting Independence Wind, and I never dreamed of having anything to do with wind during my time as governor. The precipitating factor was when I went to Sugarloaf in the summer of 2006 to testify in favor of the Redington/Black Nubble project. I went as a citizen and was frustrated. Here was an opportunity to do something about climate change, but the big picture wasn't getting across. After that, I spoke with Rob Gardiner and said, "Maybe there's something we can do." We started surveying sites and found a very good one. I tried to bear in mind the environmental objections at Redington and other sites and pre-selected sites that would hopefully minimize such problems.

We've tried to be sensitive and have met with selectmen, towns, and residents. I'm not sure if that will help or hinder the process, but my guess is that it's a curiosity to have the former governor talking about local issues. Hopefully some people in the town will think that I was a good governor and be supportive, but others might think the opposite.

Q. What do you hope to accomplish as a wind developer?

A. I would like to be associated with the development of substantial projects in Maine and make a dent in Maine's energy demand and climate impact. The bottom line is that we need to DO something about climate change instead of just talking about it. The things we need to do will require change, and change is always difficult. We need to get used to seeing windmills where we used to see ridgelines, we need to drive less and conserve more. We can't deal with a global issue by doing the same as we've always done.

Q. How did you choose the name Independence Wind? Do you see wind as a key to Maine's energy independence, or do you see Maine as a wind exporter?

A. The name was Rob's idea, and it has a nice connotation of independence from fossil fuels. It is possible that Maine could be a wind exporter. In the energy business, electrons will go where they will. We will see Maine exporting on windy days and importing on a hot summer day. If Maine develops offshore wind in a major way 15 years in the future, then it could be a major source for all of New England because of the enormous magnitude of potential.

Q. What do you see as your biggest risks and challenges to Independence Wind's success?

A. The two biggest risks are the current low natural gas prices and the permitting process. Gas prices, which determine marginal electricity prices in New England, are one-third of what they were just 16 months ago and make it very difficult for any capital-intensive source like wind or hydro to compete in the short-run. In the longer run, anything over five years, I'm still confident that wind can and will be an important part of the regional energy mix. The time will come, sooner rather than later in my view, when we'll be very happy that we have zero fuel cost sources available. On the permitting side, local opponents are getting more organized and aggressive and are driving up the cost and time involved in getting final permits. The problem, of course, is that the benefits of windpower are broadly distributed while the impacts are local. But the majority of the residents in the town which is hosting our first project have voted twice in our favor, so we've made some progress in demonstrating local as well as statewide benefits.

This information was last updated on December 13, 2009