The conversation in Mikala Woollard’s hair salon these days usually revolves around the windmills.
“I hear both sides of it, all day long,” she said.
And whenever she steps outside, there they are, looming behind the house she and her husband built on the side of Mars Hill Mountain.
“There’s no getting away from it, for me anyway.”
This quiet farming community next to the Canadian border is getting a lot of attention these days as home to New England’s first major wind farm. Twenty towering windmills line the ridge of Mars Hill Mountain, visible from virtually everywhere in town, and from several surrounding towns, too. Eight more turbines are about to go up, and the blades should start turning and generating power this month.
The windmills already are changing the town’s identity. To some, they’re beautiful. To others, an industrial eyesore. How well the wind farm fits in around here could affect plans for many other wind farms planned around the state.
“I’m absolutely sure there will be more as people see what they’re all about,” said Town Manager Raymond Mersereau. “Mars Hill is plowing the ground.”
Plowing is nothing new for the people of this town. Mars Hill sits in the heart of Aroostook County potato country, where generations of close-knit families have grown up on farms.
But harvesting wind is new, and so is being the focus of attention and curiosity.
Residents of the county know Mars Hill for its golf course and ski slope. But most people who come here are simply passing through on Route 1. Until now, the town’s biggest claim to fame may have been that the peak of Mars Hill Mountain is the first place in the United States to see the sunrise – in summer at least. Cadillac Mountain on Mount Desert Island and Porcupine Mountain in Lubec share the honor in winter.
Now, as 80-year-old native John Ackerman put it, “we’ve got something no one else has.”
Ackerman, for one, is pleased about that. “I can’t see anything wrong with it,” he said, as the breakfast discussion in Al’s Diner on Main Street turned, again, to windmills.
“It’ll give the town a good tax base,” said Lynwood Brown, a 75-year-old from the neighboring town of Blaine.
Ackerman and Brown predicted that those who don’t like the windmills will get used to them, just like they got used to the first ski tow in the 1960s. “There was a lot of people saying then it’s going to ruin the mountain,” Brown said.
The wind farm already has been drawing visitors to Mars Hill to check it out, and many here expect tourism to be one of the spinoff benefits. “That’s going to be an attraction,” Ackerman said.
That kind of acceptance, if not support, is considered a big reason Mars Hill is leading the way.
“Here, there are people who are against it but they’re not so adamant about it as they are in other places,” Mersereau said.
“We’re more attuned to people using the land the way they want to.”
Another reason may be that Mars Hill Mountain, a lone sloping rock rising from the rolling farm fields next to the Canadian border, was already developed to some extent with cell towers and the Big Rock Ski Area.
The biggest reason, though, is the wind that blows steadily over the sloping mountain as if passing over a windfoil.
“This is a great wind site,” said Andrew Perkins, project manager for Evergreen Wind Power LLC, developer of the $55 million wind farm.
The 28 windmills will be spread more than four miles across the ridgeline. Each stands 262 feet tall at the hub, with three 115-foot-long blades sticking out.
The windmills are expected to start spinning and generating power by the end of December, Perkins said. At peak conditions, the turbines will make 20 revolutions per minute and generate 42 megawatts, enough electricity to power more than 40,000 homes.
Until now, New England’s largest wind farm was a 6-megawatt plant with 11 windmills in northwestern Vermont.
The electricity made in Mars Hill will go onto the commercial grid, which means the wind power will flow into New Brunswick, Canada, where demand is stronger, rather than into Maine.
The company and the town negotiated an agreement that gives the wind farm a fixed tax bill – $500,000 a year for 20 years. That’s equal to nearly one-third of the town’s total tax revenue – $1.6 million.
The state is certain to keep its share of the new revenue – technically, it will reduce the town’s education funding – but Mars Hill is still expected to keep at least $250,000 a year. That will be enough to reduce residential tax bills by as much as 20 percent, or $400 a year for the owner of a home assessed at $80,000, Mersereau said. “This was a very fair deal for the town,” he said.
Not everyone here is convinced. George Hatt of Mars Hill said he doubts taxes will actually drop, and he thinks the town could have done better than $500,000 a year. “That’s not a lot of money,” Hatt said.
The project overcame a range of concerns, such as the potential for the windmills to kill birds or bats, something turbines have done in other parts of the country. Radar monitoring indicated the turbines were not located in the path of a significant flyway, although the company is required to monitor wildlife impacts.
On the other hand, some people have been supportive because the wind farm’s clean, renewable energy will replace power made by burning fossil fuels, a process that contributes to global warming.
Now that people are getting a good look at the windmills, however, the visual impact on the town’s rural landscape is dominating the conversation.
A lot of people are not happy with the new look, said Woollard, the hair stylist.
Woollard mostly bites her tongue when customers complain about the windmills or about not getting enough information before the project was approved. But she understands.
“Basically, I like the mountain the way it was,” she said. “I just hope it does benefit the town in some way.”
Woollard expects she’ll soon be hearing the windmills in addition to seeing them, although the developer says the noise will be minimal.
Michele Morrison, who works at Al’s Diner on Main Street here, said she can see the windmills from her home in Presque Isle and they are just as ugly from a distance as they are up close.
“I used to love to look at the mountain. It’s beautiful in every season,” Morrison said. “It’s ruined.”
A lot of people here are surprised at how much the windmills dominate the view, she said. And the idea that people would go out of their way to come to Mars Hill and look at them makes no sense to her. “For what?” she said. “Who wants to see that?”
Few people live closer to the windmills than Michele Kearney and her family. Their new home is on the mountain’s eastern slope beneath several turbines.
“When the sunset hits them, they’re kind of neat,” Kearney said. “My kids say it’s like candles on a cake.”
She’s also wondering what they will sound like, but she’s not worrying, she said. The time has come for renewable energy, she said.
“Times are changing,” she said. “I just can’t see what’s wrong with them.”
Advocates of wind power are counting on that attitude to spread.
Large wind farms have been proposed for Redington Township near the Sugarloaf Ski Resort, northern Aroostook County and Kibby Mountain in the western mountains, and there are smaller projects planned in Freedom and Deer Isle.
A total of about 1,000 megawatts of wind power is on the drawing board in Maine, the equivalent of more than 20 wind farms the size of the one on Mars Hill Mountain, said Beth Nagusky, director of Maine’s Office of Energy Independence and Security.
“The potential is huge. It’s a really exciting time,” she said. “That’s one thing we can do to stop global warming, which to me is the most serious environmental and social threat this world faces.”
Each of the wind farm proposals will face its own challenges, such as the local wildlife and aesthetic impacts, Nagusky said. But she hopes Mars Hill is the beginning of a new trend.
“Maybe more people will think that they aren’t so bad and it’s a sacrifice worth making,” Nagusky said.
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:
Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram
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