By Peter Taber
Two days after Route 1 traffic was brought to a standstill for more than three hours, a special seven-axle truck trailer with independent steering at each end trundled west through downtown Searsport Saturday morning bearing a ponderous load.
On board was 60 tons of steel in the shape of a huge cylinder 80 feet long and more than 14 feet wide. What constituted the base section of the first of 28 turbine towers, each some 262 feet high, was finally on its way to Mars Hill, site of what will be New England’s largest wind energy farm.
While Saturday’s operation also ran into trouble, this time everybody was prepared at Maltais Transport, a trucking firm headquartered just east of Montreal at Chamblay, Quebec, that specializes in moving particularly heavy loads. When, despite use of the special low-bed trailer, driver Christien Ross was still unable to negotiate a left-hand turn from Trundy Road onto Route 1, he backed up and smoothly executed a right-hand turn instead. A short distance up the road in an easterly direction, Ross found roomier passage through the back parking lot at Irving’s truck stop and reversed direction onto Route 1.
There were no further reports of trouble as the big rig with escort vehicles front and rear and a Maine State Police cruiser leading the way proceeded in the direction of East Belfast. At Swan Lake Avenue, the convoy turned right, the first leg in working its way north and east to connect with I-95.
At day’s end, the first of 56 tower sections that arrived last week by barge at the port of Mack Point from BÃ©cancour, Quebec, made one last turn–onto the Tower Road, aptly enough. From there, it was a straight shot to the summit of the 1,540-foot prominence that lends the Aroostook County town of Mars Hill its name.
It was an entirely different story Thursday morning shortly after 9 as traffic on Route 1 quickly backed up for miles in either direction of Trundy Road after the trailer bearing what was to be the first tower section to go out from Mack Point–a middle section 80 feet long and 40 tons in weight–grounded out on the crown in the middle of the intersection, partway through an abortive left turn. And there it stayed for the next three hours.
During that time, traffic in each direction was re-routed by way of Mt. Ephraim Road in Searsport and Harris Road in Stockton Springs. Meanwhile, employees with Maltais Transport and with Sprague Energy, which operates the Maine Port Authority pier at Mack Point where the tower sections were unloaded, tried a variety of strategies. Using a pair of large front-end loaders, they were eventually able to remove the hitch on the front of the trailer and replace it with a different one providing greater ground clearance.
But a utility pole near the westerly corner of Trundy Road proved intractable. Although the Maine Department of Transportation rebuilt the road this past year as part of a multimillion-dollar program of improvements to infrastructure serving Searsport’s port facility, the calculations of department engineers apparently didn’t take into account the dimensions and turning radius of a load of this size attempting a left turn. Try as he might, the driver was unable to maneuver the trailer onto Route 1 without the threat of warping it against the pole. He didn’t attempt to turn right.
Before the driver gave up, there was a scare when one of the bands securing the load snapped without warning. The behemoth cylinder rocked ominously from side to side. Fearing a potential tragedy should it break free, Searsport Police Chief Mark Pooler evacuated a portion of the Hamilton Marine parking lot fronting Trundy Road where spectators had gathered.
One newspaper reporter erroneously reported the tower section had, in fact, rolled off the trailer into the road and that the front-end loaders were used to lift it and return it to its cradle. This was apparently based in part on speculation about a relatively small gouge in the paved surface of the road intersection inflicted by the grounded-out trailer. It is true that earlier, during the unloading operation at Mack Point, one of the tower sections broke free and, by one account, nearly ended up in the harbor.
Eventually, the driver backed his rig out of the intersection. It wound up parked at the side of Trundy Road. A departure time for the next morning was tentatively planned, then scrubbed because of an equipment delay.
It was subsequently decided Ross’ truck, which originally had been scheduled to follow the truck with the middle section of tower, would instead go first. Departure was set for 7 a.m. Saturday. Although his truck would be pulling a net load 50 percent heavier, Ross exuded confidence as the appointed time approached.
“We had the wrong equipment there. That’s why we can’t make the corner,” Ross said, explaining why his fellow driver had been stymied. His rig, on the other hand, was equipped with a different kind of trailer, one with two axles at the front end and five at the rear. Separate generators provided power to remotely operated steering mechanisms allowing each end to pivot independently.
Just after 7 a.m. Saturday, Ross took a few minutes to review the route to Mars Hill one last time, this time with Trooper Kim Espling. Nearby, Andy Perkins, the project manager, acknowledged the potential headaches should the convoy go astray anywhere along the nearly 200-mile route. “I’ve gone over it 100 times,” he confessed.
Trooper Espling would lead the convoy. This was to be the first of a dozen times through the end of the month he is assigned to escort a tower section between Searsport and Mars Hill. “They’ll be going out every day Monday through Friday so I’ll probably do about 20 in all,” he said.
Asked if he expected this rig would be able to make it around the corner onto Route 1, the officer was carefully non-committal. “I hope so,” he said.
For awhile, it seemed those hopes wouldn’t be fulfilled and there might even be a repeat of Thursday’s fiasco. A light fog hugged the ground while Route 1 motorists sat immobile, involuntary witnesses as Ross maneuvered his truck forward and backward. The tension built when a bottom corner of the trailer dipped and plowed a narrow arcing furrow across the middle of the intersection. Then the plywood “over size load” sign on the front of the tractor got hung up on the banking across Route 1 in front of Valerie Murphy’s home and had to be removed. The same utility pole as two days previously continued to defeat each new angle of attack.
It was almost anticlimactic when Ross backed down Trundy Road and then came forward in the left-hand lane and with little delay or adjustment executed a right turn onto Route 1. Less than five minutes later, he returned from that direction, having had even less trouble making one right and four left turns by way of moving through Irving’s relatively spacious back parking lot.
According to Perkins, who heads Perkins Engineering in his hometown of Orono, construction work on the Mars Hill project should move off to a fast pace in the weeks immediately ahead. This follows some two and a half years of assessing the site for its potential, gaining community support and acquiring permits.
The project manager said the concrete foundation pad for the first wind turbine could be poured as early as Monday of this week, almost certainly by Wednesday. A 350-ton crane will be sent sometime next week from Boston. It will arrive in a dismantled state, its parts carried on 20 tractor-trailer trucks. As foundation pads set up and the sections arrive, the crane will lift them into place to be bolted together from within.
Perkins said that only the base and middle sections were shipped by barge out of BÃ©cancour, which is located near the head of the St. Lawrence Seaway across from Trois-RiviÃ¨res, where they were fabricated. Because the 28 topmost sections housing the turbine nacelles are somewhat narrower in diameter than the other sections, it was possible to ship them directly to Mars Hill by rail at a significant reduction in cost. The wider sections had to go by barge, he explained, because they wouldn’t have been able to pass under the Canadian National overpass at Brownville Junction.
Earlier this year, Searsport was the point of entry for the 84 turbine blades, each 115 feet long, that will be used in the Mars Hill project. They are currently being stored either at the site or at the Presque Isle Airport.
The Mars Hill project will eclipse in size an 11-tower wind farm in Vermont to become New England’s largest. Its 28 turbines will each generate 1.5 megawatts at peak output, equivalent to 1.5 million watts of power an hour. Although the energy generated will go into the Northeast power grid to be sold to those wishing to say they use green energy, the wind farm’s total peak output will be 42 megawatts, equivalent to the power needs of all of Aroostook County, about 45,000 homes. Even at a more typical output at 35 percent of capacity, the farm will generate at least enough power to supply the equivalent of 22,000 Maine homes.
The company developing the project is Evergreen Wind Power, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of UPC Wind Partners, which is based in Italy and Newton, Mass. The parent company was founded in 1995 and has since developed wind projects in Europe said to total about 900 turbines. In addition to the Mars Hill project, UPC Wind Partners has a 100 MW wind farm in southern Ontario. A 30 MW project that went on line this past spring in Hawaii reportedly supplies about 9 percent of Maui’s electrical needs. The company also has two projects in the process of gaining approval, a 75 MW wind farm at Prattsburgh, N.Y., and a 45 MW one at Sheffield, Vt.
The cost of the Mars Hill project has been listed at $55 million but Perkins cautioned, “The estimate and the reality are two different things.” This was only a preliminary estimate, he said. The reality is probably closer to $70 million. The project is expected to return about half a million dollars a year to Mars Hill for the next 20 years. The approximately 1,500 people living in this small potato farming community overlooking the Canadian border also have a TIF arrangement with the company to shelter the tax windfall from the effects of such an increase in valuation.
For Perkins, the Evergreen project is both a thrill of a lifetime for an engineer like himself and a challenge. “This is a dream for us,” he said Saturday, video camera in hand, while waiting word when the truck was ready to depart. “It’s pretty exciting for us, a little Maine company. There are only four people in our office. I started out four and a half years ago as a consultant to this project. Before that, I was an electrical engineer with Bangor Hydro for 25 years. I started out with Evergreen doing a lot of the design, the electrical. Then they asked me to be the project manager. I said, pinch me. I’ve gone to heaven. They said no, you’ve gone to Mars Hill.”
The challenge immediately ahead is getting the work done before the arrival of winter weather inexorably shuts down further construction until next spring.
“We hope to be done and off the mountain by Thanksgiving,” Perkins said. “We have to get off the mountain before snow. Mars Hill gets pretty greasy then. If we don’t get the project done by Thanksgiving we’re not getting it done.” He paused, then concluded brightly, “I think we’re going to get it done in time.”
Photo captions (click mainecoastnow.com link above to see photos):
Starting just after 9 a.m. Thursday, both lanes of Route 1 in Searsport were closed for more than three and a half hours after a flatbed trailer carrying a 135,000-pound section of wind turbine tower grounded out against the road surface as the truck driver attempted to make a left-hand turn onto Trundy Road.
Finally on its way, the 30-ton middle section of wind turbine tower moves through downtown Searsport Saturday morning bound for what will be New England’s largest wind farm project, located at Mars Hill in Aroostrook County.
A chain from a loader braces the load as workers struggle to maneuver a replacement trailer hitch into position. After a cable securing the load snapped, there was concern the wind turbine tower section might roll off the trailer into the Hamilton Marine parking lot.
The newly freed truck trailer is backed down Trundy Road Thursday afternoon to be parked for the night.
Even with a specialized flatbed trailer with independent steering at each end, the lowermost portion ended up gouging a long arcing groove in the paving when the driver attempted Saturday morning to turn east from the Trundy Road onto Route 1. The objective was to pick up Swan Lake Avenue in Belfast as the next step in the long drive to Mars Hill.