Turbines at the Pisgah Mountain wind project in Clifton. Credit: Gabor Degre

Years ago, when the Clifton Planning Board was considering an application that would allow Pisgah Mountain LLC to build five wind turbines, Chair Bruce Jellison decided to do his own research. He and other Clifton town officials traveled to a few wind farms across the state to find out how the installation had affected neighboring residential areas.

His trip to see turbines in Mars Hill in Aroostook County made him realize that he didn’t want Clifton to merely stick to state regulations on wind farms, especially when it came to standards governing the noise the turbines could make and how they would affect residents’ views.

“We went on site to look ourselves. We didn’t just take people’s word for it,” Jellison said. “When I went to Mars Hill, that is when I decided the state standards weren’t strict enough.”

Now, the town is considering an expansion of the wind farm that would more than triple its energy capacity, adding five larger wind turbines alongside the existing five. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the town of Clifton are simultaneously evaluating the expansion proposal. But because of the rules the town adopted, the wind developers have more stringent standards to meet with the Clifton Planning Board than they do with the state.

The Silver Maple Wind Project’s five turbines would add 20 megawatts of energy-generating capacity, adjoining the existing 9-megawatt Pisgah Mountain Wind Project. The expansion would be owned by Halifax, Nova Scotia-based firm SWEB, which came in as a minority partner in the original wind farm.

The application that SWEB submitted to Clifton and the DEP includes an outside evaluation of the new turbines’ visual and sound impact on the surrounding area. It also includes an evaluation of the amount of shadow flicker — an alternating light effect caused by the turbines’ rotating blades — that the turbines will create.

The shadow flicker assessment is an example of Clifton’s higher thresholds for turbine construction. The town’s rules allow only 10 hours of flicker exposure per year for nearby residential buildings, as opposed to the 30 hours per year allowed in the state’s Wind Energy Act.

If the turbine exceeds that threshold, it has to temporarily shut down, Jellison said.

“Because we’re a rural area, we felt that additional protection for the residents was warranted,” he said.

On Wednesday, the Planning Board requested additional information on the sound impact from the developers because members felt the information was inadequate, Jellison said.

The Planning Board will consider the new information at its meeting Jan. 8 and decide on next steps, including scheduling a public hearing, Jellison said.

After the hearing, it could still be months before the town grants a provisional approval, Jellison said. A provisional approval from the town would mean the project would still be awaiting the DEP’s approval.

“The state wants the town to approve it first, and the town wants the state to approve it first,” he said.

As the application moves forward, some residents of neighboring towns who have expressed disapproval of the project in the past are taking their complaints to the state.

This week, Otis resident Teresa Davis filed a request with the DEP for a public hearing. Davis is not opposed to wind farms but said she does not like the red flashing lights on the Pisgah Mountain turbines that ward off low-flying air traffic.

“A public hearing is much more formal,” she said. “It usually creates the closest scrutiny for the application.”

At this point, the DEP is expected to decide on the turbine installation’s expansion in April 2020, said Jessica Damon, the DEP project manager overseeing the Silver Maple Wind Project application.

The public hearing “could make the time frame longer,” she said.

In its application, SWEB’s development manager, Michael Carey, wrote that the project expansion would use existing roads and land the company already owns.

“We are confident that this project will be a great asset for the state,” he wrote.

If approved, the expansion would bring tax money to the town, which in the past has funded road construction and infrastructure upgrades that the town would not otherwise have been able to afford, Jellison said.

“Under our strict standards, there have been no complaints about the existing wind farm, other than those few people that just plain hate wind towers and don’t want to look at them,” he said.