Stetson Mountain is more ridgeline than mountain, running like a backbone for six miles through the rolling hills that dominate Washington County’s northernmost border with Canada.
Moderate winds sweep across those hills from Canada and pick up speed as they zoom up Stetson Mountain, which at roughly 1,100 feet is among the tallest ridges in this sparsely peopled corner of Maine.
That combination of high winds and low population has one company seeing green.
Sometime next year, 38 wind turbines – each standing about 390 feet tall from base to blade tip – would begin spinning atop the Stetson ridgeline if Evergreen Wind Power’s vision comes to fruition.
The wind farm, which would be New England’s largest if constructed today, would generate enough pollution-free energy to power 27,500 Maine households and help avert more than 100,000 tons of air pollution annually, according to the developer.
The $100 million Stetson project is one of three major wind farms pending with state regulators. And more proposals are on the way, thanks to Maine’s ample wind and the growing political and social appetite for “green” energy sources.
Yet siting a wind farm is no simple task, even in environmentally conscious states like Maine.
One major project in the western mountains was recently spared all-but-certain regulatory death only after the developer slashed the number of turbines to minimize the impact on scenic views and wildlife, two pillars of Maine’s economy.
So far, the Stetson project has raised relatively few alarms.
Standing on a dusty but well-used logging road that runs along Stetson’s spine, Matt Kearns said that UPC Wind Management, the parent company of Evergreen Wind Power, considered many potential sites throughout rural Maine.
Stetson Mountain looked fairly good on paper, but it wasn’t until the wind monitoring results came back that the company realized the site’s potential, he said. UPC is also the developer of the Mars Hill wind farm in Aroostook County, the only sizable wind energy facility operating in Maine today.
“One of the great things about this site is there are already roads here and, second, there are no homes,” said Kearns, director of project development for Massachusetts-based UPC. “We picked Stetson as a solution to what we see as the basic siting questions in Maine.”
Stetson Mountain is located near the juncture of Washington, Penobscot and Aroostook counties, running at a slight angle from Route 169. The nearest towns – Danforth and Springfield – are relatively small villages about equidistant from Stetson.
It’s a scenic corner of Maine that attracts few tourists except those passing through. Most visitors come to hunt the area’s expansive commercial forests or fish for bass and trout on 6,900-acre Baskahegan Lake or the other half-dozen lakes and ponds in the region.
Outdoor recreation is a big part of the local economy, as are logging and other natural resource-based industries. So local officials see the wind farm as a different but welcome addition that could provide a much-needed boost to the local economy and job base.
“The development of the Stetson wind project in Down East Maine would provide a commercially viable wind energy project which would be compatible with existing land uses,” Linda Pagels-Wentworth, Washington County manager, wrote to the Land Use Regulation Commission. LURC, which oversees development in the Unorganized Territory, is reviewing the Stetson application.
“We are always seeking such compatible and sustainable projects which both provide employment opportunities for our distressed area while potentially providing alternative power options to local businesses,” Pagels-Wentworth wrote in the May 15 letter.
Evergreen is seeking LURC approval to rezone approximately 4,800 acres on Stetson Mountain, although company officials insist that only a fraction of that would actually be altered to make room for the turbines.
Driving along the ridgeline woods road, it’s easy to spot areas where the current landowner, Herbert Haynes, or other logging crews have harvested trees in recent years. The 38 turbines, as currently proposed, would primarily line the existing road and whenever possible would be located in previously harvested areas, according to company officials.
Kearns estimated that the turbines would produce enough electricity, when operating 30 percent of the time, to power nearly all of the homes in Washington County, although the electricity will feed into the New England power grid.
“This is actually a fantastic wind site,” Kearns said.
Local residents concerned
Of course, it’s not possible to build more than three dozen wind turbines – each nearly 400 feet tall – anywhere in Maine without affecting someone or something. And the Stetson project will have definite impacts on some local residents and sportsmen.
For instance, the turbines will be clearly visible on the horizon to boaters on much of Baskahegan Lake, located about eight or nine miles away, as well as portions of Upper Hot Brook Lake, Lower Hot Brook Lake and Mud Pond.
The turbines will also be visible along a small portion of the Million Dollar View Scenic Byway on U.S. Route 1.
Several local residents have also raised concerns about the noise from the turbines – a current problem near UPC’s Mars Hill Wind Farm in Aroostook County – as well as the location of the transmission lines.
Jera Dill, a longtime local resident, said she believes the wind farm is a good idea from an environmental standpoint. Dill’s biggest concern – and that of many of her neighbors – was UPC’s original proposal to run the transmission line by several dozen modest houses on Tar Ridge Road.
During a meeting with UPC representatives, local residents expressed fears about possible ill health effects of living so close to power lines and that construction blasts could fracture their wells, among other issues. Dill then followed up with a letter – signed by 27 local residents – asking the company to explore alternate routes for the lines.
Otherwise, Dill said she has no major concerns about the project.
“If they didn’t put it in, I wouldn’t be sad,” Dill said recently. “But if it’s going to be here, it’s OK with me as long as they don’t put the transmission line in my front yard.”
Last week, Kearns said in an interview that the company has moved Tar Ridge Road to the bottom of the list of five possible routes in response to the residents’ concerns.
UPC’s concession hasn’t softened Tar Ridge Road resident Martha Thacker’s position against the project, however, although she acknowledges she is in the minority among her neighbors.
Thacker distrusts the company and questions how the project is helping Maine or area communities if the electricity is going into the New England power grid rather than staying local. She also wants to learn more about the noise problems in Mars Hill and worries how the turbines will affect wildlife, especially birds.
“If they’re not going to put the power lines here [on Tar Ridge Road], then I’ll be tickled,” Thacker said. “But still you’re going to have these 400-foot towers on the hill.”
On the issue of turbine noise, Kearns said he is hopeful that the turbines will be far enough from any houses to avoid problems. At the same time, Kearns said he is challenging the construction team to take a “different eye” to the Stetson project than was taken at Mars Hill. The company is also surveying bird and bat populations as part of its LURC application.
Local residents will have a chance to voice concerns or express support for the project during a LURC public hearing tentatively scheduled for Aug. 8 in Lincoln.
Three major conservation groups in the state – the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Appalachian Mountain Club and Maine Audubon – will also be offering comments or evidence during the August meeting as interveners. None of the three have taken positions on the project to date.
The Conservation Law Foundation and the Independent Energy Producers of Maine, in addition to the Washington County commissioners, are intervening in support of the project.
Sean Mahoney, director of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Maine advocacy center in Brunswick, said he knows some people will be unhappy with the Stetson project.
But he said society must consider the risks of not reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In Maine, those risks include rising sea levels and losing plants and wildlife – including the beloved sugar maple – to a warming climate, he said.
Not every spot in Maine will be appropriate for wind energy projects, Mahoney said. For instance, CLF will not be advocating for turbines on top of Mount Katahdin or many other peaks in the state, he said.
But CLF strongly supports siting a wind farm on Stetson Mountain.
“Maine has the best renewable resources in New England, and we really need to take advantage of those resources, particularly wind,” he said.
For more information on the Stetson Mountain wind project, go to www.maine.gov/doc/lurc.
By Kevin Miller
16 June 2007
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