There’s no mistaking how Dawn and Rod Mahan feel about the 28 windmills that have sprouted up over the past few months along the spine of Mars Hill Mountain, which looms over this northern Maine town just near their white farmhouse.
“Honk if you hate the windmills,” says a big handpainted sign on their front lawn.
But along the town’s main street, Dave Caldwell offers a different perspective as he gazes out the window of his auto repair shop toward the mountain, where some of the windmills are turning. “I think they’re absolutely beautiful. I can’t wait ’til they all go at the same time.”
It seems few in this town of about 1,500 people can agree on UPC Wind Management’s newly completed $85 million project, which makes the unassuming potato-growing and truck-brokerage community home to New England’s largest wind farm.
But there’s one thing everybody can agree on: The place sure looks different.
Long before a visitor arrives at Mars Hill, the towers become visible along what used to be just another mountain. The total height from the ground to the tip of the blade is 389 feet. Each tower has three blades, which spin in winds whipping west to east toward Canada just a few miles away.
More than half of the turbines were commissioned as of last week, while some final tinkering and testing was being done. UPC expects all of the towers to be generating power to the grid by the end of January, and a formal commissioning ceremony is planned in February, the Newton, Mass., company said.
Now, the folks in Mars Hill are trying to get used to their new, ever-visible – some say spectacular – neighbors. Town Manager Raymond Mersereau said some people tell him it’s not half as bad as they expected, while others say it’s worse. Most have registered no opinion, he said.
Mersereau acknowledges there’s still a lot of skepticism, but he thinks that will quickly fade later this year when their property tax bills drop 20 percent thanks to the $500,000 a year in local taxes UPC will pay Mars Hill in each of the next 20 years.
Mersereau also sees the windmills as an eco-tourism attraction that will draw schoolchildren and others who are curious about the project. The added tourism, he said, will generate new businesses while complementing the Big Rock ski area already operating on the mountain.
On a bone-numbing 15-below-zero morning with the pre-dawn sky still inky, the subject of the new windmills came up at Al’s Diner in Mars Hill, where workers swap gibes and chew over local issues while having coffee and breakfast.
Arthur London guessed three-quarters of the townspeople support the wind farm.
“I don’t see anything wrong with them,” said London. “It’s just like anything new. After it’s out there for a while, it’s part of the landscape.”
But Sam Mahan, Rod’s father, isn’t sure the windmills are so popular. “If they took a poll, they’d be in for a surprise,” he said.
Another early bird at Al’s said he was tired of looking at the same old mountain every day and welcomes the windmills, while another chimed in, “let ’em spin.”
At full capacity, the 42-megawatt wind farm will provide the power needs for 45,000 average Maine homes. Wind turbines usually operate below capacity, but even at 35 percent, Mars Hill will still crank out enough power for at least 22,000 homes, the developers say.
The windmills, dotted along a stretch of more than four miles, represent a smaller scope than projects elsewhere. The nation’s largest wind farm, Horse Hollow in western Texas, has 291 windmills spread out over 47,000 acres and generates 735 megawatts.
Still, the Mars Hill project puts Maine among the 20 states where utility-scale wind farms were installed last year, helping to make wind the second-largest source of new power generation in the country, said Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Power Association.
As Mars Hill goes online, two other major projects are being proposed in Maine, both in its western mountains.
Maine Mountain Power LLC’s proposal to erect 30 turbines producing 90 megawatts on Redington Pond Range and Black Nubble Mountain near the Sugarloaf USA ski resort was dealt a major setback Wednesday when the state’s wilderness zoning board told its staff to prepare a document calling for the project’s rejection.
The Land Use Regulation Commission has begun reviewing TransCanada Corp.’s application to build a 44-turbine wind farm, capable of producing 132 megawatts, along nearly 14 miles of ridge line on Kibby Mountain and Kibby Range.
From underneath the Mars Hill windmills, the enormous blades make a “whoosh” sound while slicing through the air at one revolution every 3 to 5 seconds.
As wind speeds and direction are monitored, the windmills are wired to individually pivot toward the breezes. Each blade can be feathered to get the most efficient push from the wind, said Dave Cowan, UPC’s vice president for environmental affairs. They are also programmed to shut down in sustained high winds.
They may be smart, but they’re ugly, critics say.
Standing next to double glass doors in her house that open to a panorama of snow-covered fields, woodlands and the mountain, Dawn Mahan pointed to vertical blinds.
“I put these up as soon as they put the windmills up,” she said. “Mars Hill is known for one thing – the mountain – and now they’ve gone and ruined it.”
While the whoosh of spinning blades was barely audible underneath a windmill on a January afternoon, some people who have built expensive homes on the east side of the mountain claim that sounds from the towers echoing off the mountain are noisy and annoying.
Cowan said he’s aware of the complaints.
“We’re looking into that in more depth. We want to make sure we’re in compliance with our permit,” which limits noise from the windmills to 45 decibels, he said.
Others, including Mahan’s husband Rod, question whether the project will generate all of the tax breaks promised. He believes the town’s added property valuation due to the windmills will result in smaller state school subsidies.
Mersereau agreed that the higher valuation will lower subsidies, but the anticipated 20-percent drop in local tax bills takes that into account, he said.
Electricity generated by the windmills will be transmitted to Canada because Mars Hill is connected to New Brunswick’s power grid. Some of that power will ultimately be resold by the Canadian buyers for Maine use.
Cowan believes that just as Maine exports potatoes, the wind project brings a great opportunity to export clean energy. He hopes local residents will not rush to judgment on the project until they see it at its full potential.
But some of the Mars Hill project’s younger supporters already see the benefits far outweighing the negatives.
“I think it’s a great idea, especially with global warming. Whatever they do to stop it is cool,” said 21-year-old Patrick Rowe, who came from Houlton about 30 miles away to snowboard at Big Rock.
By Glenn Adams, Associated Press Writer
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