TOWNSHIP 3, RANGE 8 — Strung out for 14 miles along the north-south ridges of Stetson Mountain, the 55 wind turbines look like giant pinwheels, spinning slowly in a wavy line across a green landscape.

Up close, the scale is dramatic. Ginny Goodlett stood under one of the 461-foot-tall towers, as the 300-foot-diameter blades sliced through the sky, and took in the experience.

“I wanted to hear them,” said Goodlett, a teacher who lives in Augusta. “If I want to tell people that wind power is such a great thing, I needed to hear them.”

Goodlett was among a dozen residents who took a chartered bus ride on Tuesday to visit the state’s second-largest wind farm. It was part of a series of events going on during Maine Wind Energy Week.

Wind Energy Week is being coordinated by the Maine Wind Industry Initiative. The recently formed association includes the Maine Composites Alliance, the Advanced Structures & Composites Center at the University of Maine, Cianbro and the Maine Port Authority. The group’s goal is to help expand wind power in Maine, in part by identifying the industry’s needs, resources and market opportunities.

Wind Energy Week had a small debut last year during the Maine Wind Blade Challenge, a competition for high school students to create the best wind blade design. This year’s challenge is scheduled for Friday, at the University of Maine.

Wind Energy Week has been expanded to include a dozen events this week. They range from Wednesday’s tour of the Searsport marine pier, where turbine components arrive by ship, to a bus tour today of what will be the state’s largest wind farm, the Kibby Wind project in western Maine.

By giving residents a firsthand look at the wind industry, organizers hope to build public support for developing a major manufacturing and service sector in Maine that could create thousands of jobs.

But opponents of Maine’s expanding wind industry detect another motive. They see Wind Energy Week as a sophisticated public relations campaign aimed at diverting attention from the controversy over building wind farms near people and across the state’s mountains. This week’s activities, they say, amount to propaganda from an industry that’s under fire and is fighting back.

No wind power opponents took Tuesday’s bus ride, although the free trip was open to anyone who waited to be picked up in Augusta, Bangor, Orono or Lincoln. The Stetson event attracted university students who are researching offshore wind power, retirees who have visited wind farms elsewhere, and clean-energy advocates, such as Goodlett, who sought a better understanding of the issues.

Goodlett came away with the impression that wind turbines do make noise. But to her ear, she said, the sound isn’t as disturbing as opponents make it out to be.

The Stetson Wind project is owned by Boston-based First Wind, which sponsored the tour and paid roughly $1,000 to lease the bus.
The Stetson project was built in two phases, the second of which began operating this spring. The turbines can generate a total of 82 megawatts when the wind is blowing, enough electricity for 33,000 average homes. The power is carried 38 miles along transmission lines to the regional grid.

The bus tour was joined by managers from Reed & Reed of Woolwich and Sargent Corp. of Stillwater, two lead contractors that developed the site and erected the turbines.

Bumping along the access road, participants watched a Reed & Reed construction video – accompanied by uplifting music – showing the engineering prowess needed to erect massive towers and blades in this isolated corner of Washington County.

Sargent, an earthworks contractor, spent more than $250,000 in the area and employed 60 residents, Stephen Perry, a project manager, told the group. It’s the kind of work that companies like his want to keep doing, he said.

“These temporary projects give Maine families year-round work,” Perry said.

The bus stopped at tower 20, the farm’s highest point. The wind was gusty, blowing roughly 20 mph. Besides keeping black flies at bay, the stiff breeze spun the giant blades.

The rotation could be heard and seen. A low, jet-engine type roar came from the turbines. The blades falling through the air created an audible “whoosh.” Shadows flickered and disappeared in the trees, as the blades moved across the sun.

The riders fanned out around the project, taking pictures, gazing up at the spinning blades and inspecting the steel tower. Later, they stepped inside a tower base to see instrumentation that controls the turbine.

Louise and Andy Williamson of Jefferson, who had visited wind farms in California and Texas, said they’re fascinated with wind energy.

“After you hear about that oil spill in the Gulf, you know there has to be something cleaner and better,” Louise Williamson said.

James Bartick and Kari Goraj of Orland have a small wind generator and solar panels at their home, which is not connected to the power grid. Bartick, too, wanted to hear the turbines.

Noise is a subjective sensation, and turbine sound changes with distance, wind speed and weather conditions. But like Goodlett, Bartick and Goraj concluded that the noise wasn’t objectionable, and that commercial wind development must be put in context with other energy projects.

“Look at this and compare it to coal or natural gas extraction,” Bartick said.

Lynn MacDonald of Augusta, who was traveling with Goodlett, also found the sound quieter than she expected. Riding back along the access road, looking at the string of turbines on the ridges ahead, MacDonald reached a further conclusion.

“In my opinion, they’re beautiful,” she said. “I think they’re pretty to look at.”

But activists who are fighting to keep more turbines from being erected on Maine’s mountains can’t see that beauty.

“Take me on that tour and I will cry,” said Dr. Monique Aniel, co-chair of the Citizens’ Task Force on Wind Power. “A young person, who sees wind as saving the planet, will smile. So it’s subjective.”

Even many wind power opponents appreciate that Stetson Wind is an impressive engineering accomplishment. But the hundreds of millions of dollars in government financial incentives that make wind farms viable, they say, is better spent on conservation and efficiency.

“I see this as a propaganda effort of an industry,” Aniel said. “A wind farm is an industry. It’s a steel structure that’s going to make someone a lot of money.”

Wind Energy Week is winding down, but organizers are already thinking ahead.

The event was only lightly promoted, with no advertising. That may change next year, according to John Lamontagne, a First Wind spokesman who led the Stetson tour. In his view, the more residents get to visit and experience commercial wind farms, the more comfortable they will become with the technology and its role in Maine’s energy future.

“We’re proud of the projects and we want people to see them,” he said.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:
[email protected]