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Politics and other mistakes: Sweet electricity

Annexed electricity
By AL DIAMON  |  January 14, 2009

Harley Lee has a lot to learn about running a scam.

Fortunately for Lee, president of the Yarmouth-based wind-power firm Endless Energy Corp., I'm here to point out the flaws in his little confidence game. Consider it a favor to a friend.

Well, not exactly a friend. I did once threaten to poison his drink. And in a column last summer, I called him "the antibiotic-resistant staph infection of the business world" and said he resembled "a blood-starved tick on a moose's butt."

After that, Lee took to making discreet inquiries as to my whereabouts before daring to slink into Carrabassett Valley to lay the groundwork for his latest scheme to build a 30-turbine wind farm on nearby Black Nubble and Redington mountains.

In spite of those indications of ambivalence, I still feel a bond between us. We have so much in common, like, for instance ... er ... we both eat food.

But back to Lee's current attempt to pull a fast one. He's managed to convince the Carrabassett Valley Board of Selectmen (motto: Do You Mind If We Make A Phone Call To the Folks Who Run Sugarloaf To Find Out What We Think?) to support a bill before the Legislature allowing the town to annex 10,000 acres of unorganized territory on which his wind farm would be situated. That shift to municipal control would remove the property from the authority of the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission, which has twice rejected Lee's breezy vision.

If legislators concur, Carrabassett citizens would vote on the annexation (residents of the land to be annexed don't get a say because the majority of them are moose and ticks). If the balloting goes Lee's way, the local planning board could rubber-stamp the wind-farm deal, and the bulldozers would roll next year.

There will, however, be considerable debate in town about the incentives Lee is offering residents such as myself in exchange for our support. And it's here that his inexperience as a flim-flam artist becomes painfully obvious.

In return for permission to construct an unsightly industrial complex on pristine mountain tops in plain sight of skiers on Sugarloaf and hikers on the Appalachian Trail, Lee is proposing something that compares unfavorably with offers I've received in e-mails from the former undersecretary of the Nigerian treasury.

He claims his $180 million project would provide the town with enough new revenue to lower property taxes 21 percent. If the town ever collects. Wind-power projects elsewhere in the state also promised property-tax pots of gold — right up until they won final approval. Then, they applied for tax increment financing (TIF), a state program that allows the owners to keep a significant share of their property taxes. Developers of the Kibby wind farm being constructed in northern Franklin County will save nearly $9 million over 20 years in a deal that will actually raise property taxes for other area residents. A wind farm in Mars Hill has, to date, reduced the tax rate not at all.

Even if there's no TIF, there's no guarantee the extra money will go to tax relief. Carrabassett Selectman Lloyd Cuttler has already sent out an e-mail proposing spending some of the dough the town doesn't yet have "to contribute to specific environmental and scientific programs for school programs within the district." Also, to beef up the Program for Redundancy Program.

Far be it from me to assume Cuttler, a graduate of the Harley Lee Institute of Nefarious Plotting, is attempting to blunt criticism of the wind farm from other area communities by offering them a share of the profits.

But tax relief isn't Lee's chief enticement for suckers. In his presentation to town officials, he also promised to reduce local power costs by about half. Actually, that'd be more like a third, because Lee can't control transmission charges. And even more actually, you wouldn't see any savings for a long time.

While the owners of Sugarloaf (motto: Telling the Carrabassett Valley Selectmen How to Vote Since 1971) stand to save as much as $40 million over the next few years, residential customers seeking a similar bargain would qualify for cut-rate power only if they paid Lee up front. His plan calls for my neighbors and me to each write checks for $5000, after which we'd start saving an average of 35 bucks a month.

We'd break even in about a dozen years.

If, that is, we don't move. Or die. And if Lee's company is still in business.

Last year, another wind outfit offered every resident of Roxbury 500 free kilowatts a month, with no attempt to extort front money. All Roxbury had to do was approve a wind farm by the end of 2008. Even so, the town let the deadline slide by without yielding to the pressure.

Here's hoping the Legislature does the same, by rejecting an annexation plan that amounts to an end run around state environmental laws.

As for Carrabassett Valley, we should be wary that Lee's promise of a wind-power windfall doesn't fade away into thin air.

Blow off steam by e-mailing me

Related: A win-wind situation, RI goes (a little) green, Newport company touts grease as a gas competitor, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Alternative Energy Technology, Energy Technology, Harley Lee,  More more >
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