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

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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

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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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'WHOOSH, WHOOSH, WHOOSH'

Like much of rural Maine, Aroostook County suffers from an aging, shrinking population. The official jobless rate hovers around 9 percent, nearly twice that of Greater Portland. The largest employers include community hospitals in Presque Isle, Fort Kent, Caribou and Houlton, along with a paper mill in Madawaska, a potato processor in Easton and a couple of Walmart stores.

People here remember when a Texas company called Horizon Wind came calling five years ago with the promise of jobs and investment. Big plans were drawn up, but nothing happened. Horizon went bust during the recession, and was bought eventually by EDP.

News that EDP had revived the old Horizon project was just getting around earlier this month. October is a busy time here and The County is preoccupied, moving to the rhythms of autumn.

Trucks loaded with potatoes labor up U.S. Route 1, as farmers finish the harvest. Pickups pull trailers draped with dead moose out of the woods, as hunters return from their annual ritual. Chairlifts start and stop at Big-rock Mountain in Mars Hill as workers prep the ski area for the first flakes.

Fall also is a time to close up camp.

Diane Libby eased her four-wheel-drive truck up the narrow track leading to Number Nine Mountain, topped with a fire tower/communications array. At the summit, she could feel the bracing wind. She could spot the outline of Mount Katahdin on a cloudy horizon. She could look down on Number Nine Lake, where a couple of dozen camps ring the shoreline.

Libby’s family has come here to hunt, fish and relax in solitude for half a century. Her dad, Emmett Porter, heads the local camp owners association.

A retired chemical engineer who returned home after a career in New York, Libby said she’s not against wind power. She simply wonders how EDP can put up all the towers, roads and wires without washing fish-killing silt into the streams, and subjecting camp owners to noise and the sight of massive turbines.

“I come out here for the peace and quiet,” Libby said. “I don’t come out here for whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.”

Emmett Porter’s log-sided camp is a living history display of a way of life. Rows of deer antlers hang on one wall, the hunt dates inscribed below. Smiling children hold up fish in photos. The trophy moose head that Porter shot near the camp last year peers over the scene.

Down the lake a bit, Rodney Jones had been out hunting partridge and was checking on his wife’s family’s camp. He hadn’t heard the news that the wind project was back on, and wasn’t happy about the prospect.

From the camp dock, Jones could see Saddleback Mountain on his left. Number Nine Mountain rose on his right. He and Libby chatted and wondered: Can EDP build its wind farm without erecting turbines that can be seen and heard from the camps?

“Nobody wants to see windmills along the lake,” he said.

JOBS AND COMMUNITY BENEFITS

It’s too soon to say whether that wish can be granted. EDP is still working on specifics of the project, Chapman said. The company has just begun meeting with local officials to introduce the plans. It soon will open a field office in Presque Isle. The permitting process is ramping up, with a goal of being in operation in 2016.

Most of the Number Nine Wind Farm will be in the Unorganized Territory. The closest town is Bridgewater, on the Canadian border south of Mars Hill. For travelers on Route 1, Bridgewater is little more than a wide spot in the road. But Bootfoot Road, the only pavement heading west, will be a prime entry point to the project site.

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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