Thursday, March 27, 2008

Mars Hill wind farm celebrates a year of clean power

Bangor Daily News

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

MARS HILL, Maine — State officials touted Maine’s capacity to become a major producer of pollution-free wind power on Tuesday during a ceremony marking the first anniversary of electricity production at the Mars Hill wind farm.

The Aroostook County facility has produced an estimated 133.5 million kilowatt-hours of power since beginning commercial operation in late March 2007. That is roughly the equivalent annual electricity demand of more than 19,000 New England homes.

Standing at the base of the slopes of Big Rock Ski Area, Gov. John Baldacci praised the Mars Hill wind farm and its developer, UPC Wind. Baldacci said wind power should play a central role in Maine’s goal of moving away from foreign oil and toward more homegrown energy solutions.

"This is just the start," Baldacci said. "It’s time to tap into Maine’s natural resources to give us a cleaner and greener source of energy. … We have the natural resources and the geography to become energy-independent."

With 28 turbines each measuring nearly 400 feet tall, the Mars Hill facility is currently New England’s largest wind farm. But that title is unlikely to last much longer as more and more companies seek to capitalize on the current positive regulatory and financial atmosphere for wind power.

Massachusetts-based UPC Wind is constructing a 38-turbine wind farm on Stetson Mountain in northern Washington County and is exploring additional sites, including one in the Lincoln-Lee area. Another company, TransCanada Maine Wind Development, recently gained regulatory approval for a 44-turbine wind farm in Kibby and Skinner townships in Franklin County.

Several other large wind farms have also been proposed elsewhere in Maine and New England.

UPC Wind officials estimate that a power plant would need to burn 260,000 barrels of oil or 70,000 tons of coal to yield the same amount of energy produced at Mars Hill during the past year. They also estimate that traditional New England power plants would release 60,000 tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide to produce the same amount of electricity.

The Baldacci administration is completing legislation that aims to streamline the regulatory review process for wind farms. An outgrowth of a task force on wind power, the legislation is expected to propose that the state identify which areas are acceptable for wind development. Wind projects in such areas would have an expedited review.

The task force recommends aiming for producing 2,000 megawatts from wind by 2015. Nonetheless, wind power constitutes a tiny fraction of the total electricity produced in Maine. And in order to achieve the state’s goals on renewable energy, Maine would have to tap into a broad range of sources, including tidal power and biomass, state officials said.

Matt Kearns, director of project development at UPC Wind, said the company began talking about the Mars Hill project during what he called "uncertain times" for wind power in New England. He praised the state’s progress since then as well as the administration’s proposal for streamlined reviews of projects in areas deemed appropriate for wind farms.

"That’s the way Maine is going to lead in the future," Kearns said. "The environment and the economy don’t have to be mutually exclusive. We can do both."

Representatives of the town of Mars Hill — located about 14 miles south of Presque Isle — also praised UPC Wind for helping lower property taxes by 20 percent because of $500,000 in taxes paid by the company annually.

Several speakers at Tuesday’s event did acknowledge that the Mars Hill facility has had challenges, however. Foremost among those is the ongoing noise concerns raised by some neighbors of the wind farm.

Neighbors have claimed that UPC Wind is violating its permit conditions because of excessive noise from the turbines. Company representatives say all of the tests have come back showing that the facility is in compliance.

But earlier this winter, an organization called Industrial Wind Action Group filed a complaint with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection claiming that UPC Wind used flawed methodology when calculating noise levels.

UPC Wind’s president and CEO, Paul Gaynor, said in an interview that the company has committed to doing a better job in the future ensuring that local residents know what to expect when a large wind farm is built nearby.

"I know there was an expectation [in Mars Hill] about what these were going to sound like," Gaynor said. "These are big structures and they do make sound."

Baldacci said he recognizes there has been some controversy over the Mars Hill facility.

"It’s important that we are sensitive to these issues and that we work together to find a solution," he said.

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