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Big wind: Does a four-percent share of Maine's power grid warrant turbines atop Kibby Mountain?  

I’m writing this column and you’re reading it on a computer powered by coal smoldering somewhere. There may be some diesel fuel thrown in, and some waterpower, and no doubt a little biomass, a spot of nuclear, a few turns of wind. But it’s only been ten years or so that my writing required any power at all beyond breakfast – I went from a green Hermes portable typewriter straight to a chunky MS-DOS PC by Zenith, enormous learning curve, hours of study, all those arcane pathways, nothing I need to know these six generations of computers later.

Anyway, if I turn the room lights out while I work tonight, maybe I can conserve enough to make up for the additional usage—I mean the computer screen and keyboard are both lit, after all, and all my attention is upon them, so why do I need any other light? And I could go ahead and turn off the lights in the bathroom, turn off the printer and scanner and copier and fax until I’m ready to use them. I could unplug the TV and VCR and DVD and phone machine and various chargers (toothbrush, cell phone, Makita driver-drill) and even the newfangled beeping toaster when they’re not in use – like right now – snuff those little red and orange and green lights that say the machinery is always warmed up, little lights uncommon back when carbon paper was the only backup I knew, not so long ago. And then there are these dark, late winter mornings – sometimes I’ve got ten lightbulbs burning by the time the sun comes over the treetops, lights that sometimes stay on till noon, long after their battle against seasonal affect disorder is over for the day.

Here’s the question: How vigilant would I have to be to save four percent of my electricity usage? Not very, right? Only four percent? Like nothing I’d even notice. Finish a shower four percent sooner, for example. Turn the water heater down four percent, from 110 degrees to 105.6. Move the wheel in the fridge from 4 to 3.9, and so forth, all around the house.

Four percent is how much the Kibby Mountain and Kibby Ridge wind project, approved January 14 by the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission, might eventually be able to add to the power picture in Maine (pretending for the moment that power made in Maine could be said to stay in Maine).

So here’s the next question: should we here in Maine be trading 13 miles of admittedly cut-over (but otherwise undeveloped) mountainside and ridgeline for a four percent we could conserve with no such loss?

Well, the answer’s been given, the project approved, and TransCanada, a big gas pipeline company, will build 44 towers, each 300 feet tall, millions of dollars investment each, all springing up along with new roads and the heavy transmission lines required, a lot of activity and infrastructure in a place that could have fairly quickly been returned to the wild.

Four percent.

Bob Kimber, whom many of my readers will know – writer, adventurer, activist, teacher – invited Drew Barton and me for a walk up Kibby Mountain last June. Many of you will know Drew, too—he’s a forest ecologist and a professor at the University of Maine at Farmington. Two fine hikers, endless forest knowledge between them. The point of the walk was to see the proposed site of the Maine Wind Development project. Bob said to bring snow shoes, and we did, loading them into the back of my car obediently, not that any of us had seen any snow in over a month.

Bob has close ties to the Kibby area, having grown up summers and hunting seasons at his father’s camps in Eustis, 40 or so miles north of Farmington. Franklin is a big county, and touches Canada at the top, a jagged border. Kibby, in fact, is part of the Boundary Range, beyond which the land flattens into the St. Lawrence Valley: suddenly, people speak French and eat good food.

Bob and Drew and I talked in English about wind power for much of the hour’s drive up there. Bob was way against the Kibby proposal. I was inclined to be sympathetic to it, as wind has always seemed like the cleanest possible replacement for fossil fuel power, widely available, cheap, eternal. I love the machinery, too, liking the looks of giant wind turbines where I’ve seen them: the failed elliptical blade on Martha’s Vineyard; the failed three-blade monster on Cuttyhunk Island in Vineyard Sound; the enormous and apparently successful windfarm near Joshua Tree National Monument outside Palm Springs, California, thousands of towers like a bumper crop of titanic whirlygigs. In Costa Rica the turbines rose above cloud forest on the verges of volcanoes, no worse than picturesque, to my mind, especially in a country where wind provides some 75% of electric needs (and I do mean needs, whereas much of U.S. use is wants). All across the Permian Basin in Texas, too, where the oil used to be: wind towers on every ridge now, and more and more going in, and roads to service them, and power lines to bring the power to market, all in a landscape beyond hope.

Transmission lines. I hadn’t thought about. The rights of way for those things are wide and range far. They are traditionally kept clear of foliage with herbicide dropped from airplanes.

Proliferation. Once you open an area to industrial use, it’s hard to argue against further use, more strings of wind towers, and why not a pipeline or two while we’re at it, and a fast food joint or two.

Future junk. Technologies obsolesce. That’s a law of the laboratory. The hulk of the Cuttyhunk turbine is still there twenty-five years out, having never produced any power, and too expensive to fix. It looks nice on the island skyline among houses, but it’s garbage. Whose going to remove all the Kibby infrastructure when it’s no longer making good? Nobody, that’s who.

Big wind. Wind power isn’t attractive small enterprise anymore, but the turf of energy companies whose nature and need is growth, then more growth. The wind power I’ve always romanticized is a pretty propeller in every neighborhood, yes in my back yard. But still. I’m a big fan. Of big fans. Wind power remains my hero, at least when the turbines are sited in areas already thoroughly in use. Wind maps for Maine show all the possible places where the big turbines can work efficiently—wind speed and reliability are crucial—not many suitable sites in southern Maine (except offshore), a few isolated spots in central Maine, and of course a great many sites in the mountains.

Wonderful, I’d say, no problem, put up towers, catch that wind, but do it atop, say, Streaked Mountain in the South Paris area, which is already covered with communications towers. Or on the top of any ski mountain, such as already thoroughly exploited Sugarloaf, where a few turbines could power the whole operation: run the lifts, blow the snow, cook the Bag Burgers, light the trails, have some left over for the grid.

Of course, Kibby could be said to be thoroughly exploited already—it’s been the site of heavy logging for generations. Why not put towers there?

Well, because then there will no longer be nothing there, and nothing is increasingly short supply.

But this is the story of a hike.

We drove to Eustis, then entered the forest on heavily traveled logging roads, scaring up a small flock of crossbills picking up something in the roadway, finally parking at a trail head, the old fire-warden’s trail. Not a spot of snow in sight. So we left the snow shoes. The trail follows a long upward-climbing ridge, and within a mile we were walking on well-packed snow. Soon, though, the snow got softer, the puddles deeper, the trail, having collected a winter’s worth of drift, turning into a series of narrow ponds connected by little rivers.
Halfway up, the old warden took a sudden right turn, and the trail climbed more sharply. The snow got deeper and then deeper yet. Drew and Bob are lighter than I, and could walk on top of the pack, only occasionally breaking through. I broke through every fourth step, my shoes getting wetter and wetter, my feet heavier and heavier.

Around us the trees grew stunted until we were walking among true Krumholtz specimens, weather-stunted bonsai spruces leaning the way the wind has blown for millennia. Boreal chickadees followed our progress, smaller than the familiar black-capped, chestnut-colored heads. Blackpoll warblers sang, and yellow-rumped, and another warbler unfamiliar, unseen. We hoped to see spruce grouse, but instead flushed a ruffed grouse so tame he didn’t bother flying away, though we walked around and around his tree, marveling: here was a bird who’d never seen a person before.

The last couple of hundred yards to the peak were the hardest work: deep, soft snow with a brook of melt running beneath it such that when you broke through (nearly every step for me), your feet got soaked in water barely above freezing.

Finally the top. Long views in all directions, crisp, dry day. Mountains and ridges and hills and valleys and more mountains and ridges and hills and valleys. We sat on rocks amongst the shattered boards of the old lookout tower, nothing but a platform left, well initialed with penknife and axe. Plenty of smashed bottles. But I took off my shoes, warmed my feet in the sun, let them dry, pulled on a fresh pair of socks, ahh, balanced my hiking shoes to drain and sun-dry atop blueberry bushes.

After lunch we stretched and groaned and lay back a moment, enjoyed being inside our weary bodies. Then, nothing better to do, we climbed the lookout platform. Up there, nothing, nothing, nothing. Nothing everywhere you looked, nothing, the only sign of people a stretch of sandy logging road visible below, and a score or so cuttings on a dozen or so mountainsides and hillsides, various ages and acreages, bare swaths, mangy swaths, thick green swaths, light green swaths, all reflecting the changing forestry philosophies and practices and laws of the decades. Over there, just over the next several peaks and ridges, not more than five miles: Canada.

Bob pointed out Kibby Ridge, just across a sharp valley and a little below us. We gazed a long while, trying to imagine what 44 towers would look like, trying to understand where they’d be. Already there were test towers in place measuring wind: one, two, three. These must have been dropped by helicopter, no roads in as yet. I tried to imagine 44 turbines whirling, whistling, whisking their four percent for Maine into transmission lines straddling cleared rights-of-way and snaking off into the distance, years of labor, decades of maintenance, some pretty good jobs, for sure. And more than likely the company of more wind projects in years to come, now that hearts have been broken (if I may make an analogy from the card game), eventual desuetude, ineluctable obsolescence.

By Bill Roorbach

Bill Roorbach lives in Farmington.

Down East

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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