Monday, August 07, 2006

On brink of wind energy

Blethen News
By GLENN ADAMS, Associated Press
August 7, 2006

MARS HILL — At the crest of a mountain ridge that hugs northern Maine's border with Canada, New England's biggest wind-power development so far is quietly taking shape. A road following the spine of Mars Hill Mountain has been blazed through the thick woods and now connects in dot-to-dot fashion 28 flattened sites where 262-foot-high turbines will rise. A contract is to be awarded soon to pour foundations for the turbines, which are being built in Canada.

Once the turbines go up, immense windmill blades - each 115 feet long - will be fixed to the towers, which are spaced at six or seven per mile. Evergreen Wind Power, developers of the $55 million Mars Hill Wind Farm, hopes to begin cranking out power this year.

"The project is large by New England standards," said Peter Gish, general counsel and managing director of UPC Wind Management LLC of Newton, Mass., Evergreen's parent company.

Overlooking breathtaking vistas of green checkerboard fields spreading out from the mountain's base and forests and mountains farther in the distance, the 42-megawatt Mars Hill project will provide enough power to supply about 45,000 average Maine homes at full capacity - in effect, all of northern Maine's Aroostook County.

Wind turbines usually operate below capacity, but even operating at 35 percent, Mars Hill will still crank out enough power for at least 22,000 homes, the developers say. Talks to determine a buyer for the wind farm's power are continuing.

The project is similar in scope to the 30-turbine proposal being considered for Black Nubble and Redington Pond Range in Franklin County. The Redington project, however, would be able to produce twice as much power.

Still, the Mars Hill project will stand out in New England, home to the highest recorded wind speeds in the mainland U.S. and, according to the federal Department of Energy, the birthplace of wind power in America.

What was once the world's largest electricity-producing windmill was installed in 1941 at Grandpa's Knob, Vt., then razed in 1946. The DOE says the world's first wind farm, which had 20 turbines, was built in 1980 at Crotched Mountain in New Hampshire. It ended up a failure.

Today, the only other New England wind power sites capable of producing enough power for commercial distribution - or "utility scale" in industry terminology - are an 11-turbine, six-megawatt wind farm that's operated in Searsburg, Vt., for nearly a decade, and sites in Princeton, Hull and Buzzards Bay, Mass., says the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group based in Washington.

More than 10 large and small wind-power facilities are on line in the region.

More could be on their way. A proposed 24-megawatt project in Lempster, N.H., is under regulatory review. A 13.5-megawatt project in western Massachusetts' Berkshires is moving through the regulatory process.

Two of New England's most ambitious proposals call for a 120-turbine, 468-megawatt wind farm in Buzzards Bay and the 130-turbine, 420-megawatt Cape Wind in Nantucket Sound off the Massachusetts coast. The wind association counts more than a dozen proposed sites in the six-state region.

"It's clear," Evergreen's Gish said, "that wind power has captured the imagination of many people." But not everyone.

Projects become bogged down in the permitting process and end up being dropped by developers, said Pete Didisheim of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which supports wind power in general but has taken issue with some projects.

"If you look across New England, I would say that prospects of wind power are not very bright," said Didisheim, who sees the industry in "a sort of hurry-up-and-wait" situation in New England.

While wind power is undisputedly clean, opponents cite the visual intrusions that windmills can become. Some environmentalists wince at the harm caused to birds and bats. Others say they are noisy and inefficient, and cause erosion.

New England's high population density creates more opportunity for opposition groups to organize, said Kathy Belyeu of the wind association.

"With New England, siting tends to be more difficult," she said.

In Maine, the Redington Pond Range proposal attracted both support and opposition this week as state regulators held three days of hearings.

The 90-megawatt Maine Mountain Power project would turn out enough power for about 40,000 households and offset the need to pump hundreds of thousands of pounds of pollutants into the air, according to Endless Energy Corp. of Yarmouth and Edison Mission Group of Irvine, Calif., partners in the project.

But the proposed wind farm four miles west of the Sugarloaf USA ski area faces opposition even from conservation and outdoors groups. They say it presents a threat to a rare bird, the Bicknell's thrush, and to other species and would mar vistas along the Appalachian Trail.

The Natural Resources Council proposes chopping the project nearly in half, which developers say would doom it. But the council backed the Mars Hill project.

Elsewhere in Maine, commercially sized wind power projects are proposed in northern Aroostook County and on Kibby Mountain in the western mountains; there are also smaller projects in Freedom and Deer Isle.

Mars Hill's developers believe they avoided the kinds of opposition other wind projects have confronted because they picked an ideal location.

Gish said Mars Hill is already partially developed with a ski area, several communication towers and access roads. He also said it is not in an environmentally sensitive area where bird migration is an issue.

The project also has the support of a strong majority of the town's 1,480 residents - perhaps 80 percent to 90 percent - said Mars Hill Town Manager Raymond Mersereau.

Some people in town were unhappy that the familiar mountain's appearance would be changed, a concern Mersereau, a native of the area, said he understands.

But Mersereau said the benefits, such as $500,000 in new tax revenues for each of the next 20 years, will take the sting away. Besides lowering property taxes, the project will create jobs and might even become a tourist draw.

"There's the gawk effect of people coming here," he said.

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