Monday, January 29, 2007

Town blows hot and cold on wind farm

Glenn Adams
Sunday, January 28, 2007

MARS HILL ‹ There's no mistaking how Dawn and Rod Mahan feel about the 28 windmills that have sprouted along the spine of Mars Hill Mountain, which looms over this northern Maine town near their white farmhouse. "Honk if you hate the windmills," says a big hand-painted sign on their front lawn.

But along the town's main street, Dave Caldwell offers a different perspective as he gazes out the window of his auto repair shop toward the mountain, where some of the windmills are turning. "I think they're absolutely beautiful. I can't wait 'til they all go at the same time."

It seems few in this town of about 1,500 people can agree on UPC Wind Management's newly completed $85 million project, which makes the unassuming potato-growing and truck-brokerage community home to New England's largest wind farm.

But there's one thing everybody can agree on: The place sure looks different.

Long before a visitor arrives at Mars Hill, the towers become visible along what used to be just another mountain. The total height from the ground to the tip of the blade is 389 feet. Each tower has three blades, which spin in winds whipping west to east toward Canada, just a few miles away.

More than half the turbines were commissioned as of last week, while some final tinkering and testing were being done. UPC expects all of the towers to be generating power for the grid by the end of January, and a formal commissioning ceremony is planned in February, the Newton, Mass., company said.

Now Mars Hill residents are trying to get used to their new, ever-visible ­ some say spectacular - neighbors. Town Manager Raymond Mersereau said some people tell him it's not half as bad as they expected, while others say it's worse. Most have registered no opinion, he said.

Mersereau acknowledges there's still a lot of skepticism, but he thinks that will fade quickly later this year when their property tax bills drop 20 percent thanks to the $500,000 a year in local taxes UPC will pay in each of the next 20 years.

Mersereau also sees the windmills as an eco-tourism attraction that will draw schoolchildren and others who are curious about the project. The added tourism, he said, will generate new businesses while complementing the Big Rock ski area that operates on the mountain.

On a bone-numbing, 15-below-zero morning, with the pre-dawn sky still inky, the subject of the new windmills came up at Al's Diner, where workers swap gibes and chew over local issues while having coffee and breakfast.

Arthur London guessed three-quarters of the townspeople support the wind farm.

"I don't see anything wrong with them," London said. "It's just like anything new. After it's out there for a while, it's part of the landscape."

But Sam Mahan, Rod's father, isn't sure the windmills are so popular. "If they took a poll, they'd be in for a surprise," he said.

Another early bird at Al's said he was tired of looking at the same old mountain every day and welcomes the windmills. Another chimed in, "Let 'em spin."

At full capacity, the 42-megawatt wind farm will provide the power needs for 45,000 average Maine homes. Even at 35 percent, Mars Hill will crank out enough power for at least 22,000 homes, the developers say.

The windmills, dotted along a stretch of more than four miles, represent a smaller scope than projects elsewhere. The nation's largest wind farm, Horse Hollow in western Texas, has 291 windmills spread over 47,000 acres and generates 735 megawatts.

Still, the Mars Hill project puts Maine among the 20 states where utility-scale wind farms were installed last year, helping to make wind the second-largest source of new power generation in the country, said Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Power Association.

As Mars Hill goes on line, two other major projects are proposed in Maine, both in its western mountains.

Maine Mountain Power LLC's proposal to erect 30 turbines producing 90 megawatts on Redington Pond Range and Black Nubble Mountain, near the Sugarloaf USA ski resort, was dealt a major setback Wednesday when the state's wilderness zoning board told its staff to prepare a document calling for the project's rejection.

The Land Use Regulation Commission has begun reviewing TransCanada Corp.'s application to build a 44-turbine wind farm, capable of producing 132 megawatts, along nearly 14 miles of ridge line on Kibby Mountain and Kibby Range.

As wind speeds and direction are monitored, the windmills are wired to pivot individually toward the breezes. Each blade can be feathered to get the most efficient push from the wind, said Dave Cowan, UPC's vice president for environmental affairs. They also are programmed to shut down in sustained high wind.

They may be smart, but they're ugly, critics say.

Standing next to double glass doors in her house that open to a panorama of snow-covered fields, woodlands and the mountain, Dawn Mahan pointed to vertical blinds.

"I put these up as soon as they put the windmills up," she said. "Mars Hill is known for one thing - the mountain - and now they've gone and ruined it."

Electricity generated by the windmills will be transmitted to Canada because Mars Hill is connected to New Brunswick's power grid. Some of that power ultimately will be resold by the Canadian buyers for use in Maine.

No comments: