October 27, 2013

Big county, big ambitions for wind in Maine

Aroostook County becomes a major hub for wind power development.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

Today's poll: Wind farms

Are two proposed wind farms in Aroostook County a positive development for the state?

Yes

No

View Results

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The Mars Hill wind farm, seen Wednesday, October 16, 2013, stretches the length of Mars Hill Mountain.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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From the back steps of her father’s camp on Number Nine Lake in Township 9, Range 3, Diane Libby looks out over the landscape that she worries will be adversely affected by a $500 million wind turbine project – the largest in New England – proposed by EDP Renewables. At top, turbines populate the ridges of Mars Hill Mountain in eastern Aroostook County, where First Wind built a large-scale project in 2007.

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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A preview of what this area has to offer came in 2007, when First Wind erected the state’s initial, large-scale wind farm at Mars Hill, northeast of here. The hill is unusual, a long 1,660-foot-high ridge on the Canadian border that rises out of the potato fields.

First Wind had no choice at the time but to sell the power from Mars Hill in neighboring New Brunswick. Now it has a New England option, supported by long-term contracts.

OBSTACLES AND OPPOSITION

As with all major construction ventures, Aroostook’s wind potential faces obstacles.

Any new transmission line must be approved by ISO-New England, the regional grid operator. Engineers must determine that hooking up large amounts of far-flung wind power won’t jeopardize the stability of the grid. That’s a growing concern. Northern Maine is the weakest part of the regional grid, the ISO says. Developers who don’t install robust connections run the risk of having their project’s output taken off-line at times, something the ISO already has done.

Competitors also may slow things down. Two energy companies that lost out to EDP in Connecticut’s renewables bidding recently raised questions about the process. Connecticut regulators approved the contract last week.

Anti-wind activists are, of course, dismayed and have vowed to fight environmental permits.

Last week, Friends of Maine’s Mountains testified at a hearing before the Massachusetts Public Utilities Commission, which must approve utility contracts for the wind farm in Oakfield as well as five other proposed projects in Maine. The group’s public affairs director, Chris O’Neil, argued that regulators should consider the damage that will be done to his state.

“The woefully low energy density of grid scale wind development, relative to its sprawling scope and scale, has the potential to destroy Maine’s quality of place for very little benefit – economic or environmental,” O’Neil said.

Utilities have said that the long-range contracts they signed for Maine wind power are in the range of 8 cents per kilowatt hour. They say that’s comparable to the cost of electricity from natural gas, which generates more than half the power in the region.

In his testimony, O’Neil cited ISO-New England figures that wholesale electricity costs last year fell to a 10-year low, to 3.6 cents/kwh. He didn’t mention that wholesale natural gas prices were at extreme lows last year and now are rising.

While price is a talking point, opponents object most strongly to the visual impact that hundreds of wind towers will have on Maine’s scenic, rural vistas. They note that wind has a limited operating capacity in the Northeast, spinning turbines only around 30 percent of the time, over the course of a year. Overall, wind doesn’t generate enough power to greatly reduce the use of fossil fuels, they say, so isn’t worth the impact on the environment.

“Most people never get up to Aroostook,” said Penny Gray, a wind power opponent who is a co-owner of the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport. “It’s the other Maine. It’s big-sky country and the big woods.”

But Gray, who owns an off-the-grid home in Fort Kent, acknowledged that The County doesn’t have the same tourism and scenic attractions as Maine’s western mountains, which have been a base of anti-wind sentiment.

“I don’t know,” she said. “There’s almost a sense of despair (in Aroostook). No matter what residents say, they’re going to have to live with these things.”

That’s been the outcome, so far. Lakefront owners in Island Falls, one town away from Oakfield, lost a 2011 Maine Supreme Judicial Court challenge to an earlier version of First Wind’s project. Conversely, Oakfield voters overwhelming approved the wind farm, eager for the millions of dollars in financial benefits that will flow to the town for 20 years.

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Additional Photos

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Jim Sholler, a former Oakfield selectman who chaired the town’s wind farm review committee, says some of the money the town receives as part of its deal with First Wind will go toward purchasing a new fire truck and building a new station.

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Dave Fowler, New England development director for First Wind, walks along a ridge in the Oakfield Hills this month. Thanks in part to a lucrative community benefits package, Oakfield has embraced plans by the company to build a 50-turbine wind farm scheduled to be online by 2015.

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Rodney Jones of Fort Fairfield stands on the dock of his wife’s family’s camp on Number Nine Lake in Township 9, Range 3 in central Aroostook County. Jones said he opposes a wind farm proposed by EDP Renewables. “Nobody wants to see windmills along the lake,” he said.

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Town Manager Dale Morris says he’s proud of Oakfield’s deal with First Wind. “This is stabilizing the town,” he said. “Done the right way, it’s setting Oakfield up for quite some time.” For years, there hasn’t been enough revenue to pave the roads.

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Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer The Mars Hill wind farm, active since 2007, offers Aroostook County residents a glimpse of a large-scale operation. Officials with First Wind say the lessons from Mars Hill led the company to increase turbine setbacks and seek more community input.



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Today's poll: Wind farms

Are two proposed wind farms in Aroostook County a positive development for the state?

Yes

No

View Results