Women serving prominent roles in Maine’s emerging wind energy industry

July 4, 2014 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

Visitors to the Portland waterfront stop to watch screeching seagulls coast in the gentle wind.

To them, the drifting birds are a part of the local atmosphere, but Katherine Joyce sees a multibillion dollar industry in the onshore breeze.

Joyce is an attorney at Bernstein Shur in Portland who specializes in the complex permitting process needed to harness wind for power, a cause to which she’s clearly devoted.

“Think of the resources here,” she says, gesturing seaward from a Commercial Street coffee shop. “What other state has this much space — and wind?”

Maine leads New England in the amount of power it generates from wind, but substantial obstacles remain. The high cost and environmental impact of running transmission lines to connect far-flung wind farms to the electrical grid is one of them.

Another is a thicket of regulation that contributes to the fact that only one in five projects in the Northeast actually ever gets built, according to Wakefield, Massachusetts-based consulting firm Energy Security Analysis Inc.

In addition to being an evangelist for alternative energy, there’s something else Joyce represents: She’s one of a surprising number of women in Maine who are prominent in the fast-growing industry.

This trend is surprising, because women hold only 12 percent of jobs in the business nationwide, according to research by the women’s advocacy group Catalyst.

“It’s the same thing we see across most high-tech industries,” Kristen Graf, executive director of the national group Women of Wind Energy, says. “There is a rapidly increasing number of women entering these fields, but the changeover time and the retention of women has never been as strong as we’d like, and that’s a pattern we see in wind energy as well.”

That national pattern isn’t helped by the fact that, in spite of alternative energy’s meteoric growth, far fewer women than men enter the occupations that principally fuel it. Barely 14 percent of engineers and architects are women, and women make up only 2 percent of electricians, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s unlikely to change soon; colleges and universities continue to graduate four times more male than female engineers.

Even in Maine, “We are frequently the only women in the room,” Joyce says. “We are usually representing male clients in front of male regulatory bodies.”

But the fact that wind energy is still a comparatively new industry means there are also fewer traditional barriers for those women who want to move in and move up. And Maine, with its two degrees of separation, is small enough to offer opportunities like that, these women say.

When alternative-energy companies needed someone to create the first-ever tax increment financing in Maine’s so-called unorganized territories — special arrangements to allow sudden windfalls of tax revenues from huge new projects to be spent on economic development — they came to Joan Fortin, who already crafted similar plans for other kinds of ventures in incorporated towns and counties downstate.

“There was no 65-year-old guy in my firm who had already done 25 of these, because no one had ever done any,” Fortin, chairwoman of the municipal and regulatory practice group at Bernstein Shur, says. “And that was my entree into wind.”

Almost all the rules and regulations governing alternative energy in Maine are new, Joyce echoes. “While there are plenty of the generic old white men in the business world we work in, we’re all learning together. We all have equal footing.”

That means there are fewer of the barriers women often face in more traditional industries, says Juliet Brown, who also works on wind energy as chair of the Environmental Law Group at Portland’s Verrill Dana. “You don’t have the old-boy network.”

In fact, Maine’s alternative-energy sector has spun off a sort of new-girl network. A majority of the women in the industry know each other, and many are or have been members of the Maine State Bar Association’s natural resources and environmental law section, which Joyce previously chaired.

“We kind of lift each other up,” Joyce says. “We all know what it’s like when you have to slog through a week where everybody has something to say about what you’re wearing or asks you what happens if your kids get sick.” But these are women, she says, “who really like what they’re doing and are not going to let some schmo faze them.”

There is support for wind from some environmental groups — Environment Maine, for instance, credits Maine’s wind industry with preventing more than 534,000 tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere — but opposition from others, on top of chronic political uncertainty in Washington.

“The industry has some very vocal opponents who are well funded, who are very ideological and who are motivated to show up at public hearings and legislative hearings, and that tends to be the noise that you hear,” Brown says.

Signals from Augusta also have been mixed. Gov. Paul LePage contends new forms of power generation have been driving up utility bills and benefiting special interests at the expense of Maine ratepayers.

“We have people in Maine who say that wind is the answer. And it is the answer — for people who lobby for wind,” the governor told a town hall meeting in Newport.

For its part, the Maine Renewable Energy Association says alternative energy has pumped more than $1.1 billion into the state’s economy and is projected to create 12,000 temporary and permanent jobs.

“It’s really the only major industry I know of that is seriously interested in expanding in Maine, and we could use the shot in the arm,” Joyce says.

A proposal to build a floating wind-power project in the waters off Monhegan Island, called Maine Aqua Ventus I, is moving forward, but it lost momentum last month when key federal funding was steered to other projects around the country. Backers of another offshore project, Hywind, pulled out, citing shifting state policies.

“Most people I talk to agree that we need to find new long-term energy solutions, but not everyone agrees that wind is the answer,” Katie Chapman concedes. Chapman is project manager in Maine for Houston-based EDP Renewables North America, the U.S. branch of a Spanish company that has been trying since 2007 to build New England’s largest wind farm in Aroostook County and is also considering other sites in Maine

One solution, Chapman suggests, that will bring some consensus is by gaining public support. “I like the ‘Who’s your farmer?’ bumper stickers, because they draw attention to the importance of knowing where your food comes from. I wish there was an equally catchy ‘Who’s your generator?’ so people would be encouraged to take responsibility for their own energy use and support solutions rather than oppose them.”

On the upside, in addition to plenty of wind and a lot of uninhabited space, Maine has willing buyers in other New England states that have passed laws requiring power companies to generate specified amounts of electricity from renewable sources.

“There’s a lot going on,” Fortin says. And women in Maine are playing an outsized part. “These are huge projects, and it’s really nice to see women in those roles.”

But the women in the industry say it has a long way to go on that score, too.

“There are a lot of opportunities in this field for innovation and for tackling things in new ways,” Graf, of Women of Wind Energy, says. “That said, it’s still part of the larger energy and utility industry that has a long history of following the status quo.”

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