STETSON MOUNTAIN, Maine – They are tall. There’s no disputing that.
The first thing you notice about Stetson Wind, the 55-turbine wind farm here on Stetson Mountain in the northeast corner of Maine, is the height of the turbines.
From as far away as five miles, the individual turbine towers stand out in the Maine woods like very large sore thumbs. Each is nearly as tall as the 26-story library at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
The second thing you notice is that each is in motion. A good stiff breeze that is moving through the Maine hills has the Stetson turbines spinning in place like giant pinwheels.
This leads to a third observation. Drawing nearer and nearer, you notice how these massive machines with giant spinning blades make less noise than an idling car.
“We’ve had a lot of people come here on tours and say, ‘I thought these things were loud,'” says operations manager William Hare. “And you say to them, ‘That’s the tower right there, and you’re standing underneath it, and that’s as loud as it gets.'”
The Stetson wind farm is operated by First Wind, www.firstwind.com, the Boston-based company that is eyeing a similar, but much smaller operation of eight to 10 turbines on West Mountain in the Western Massachusetts town of Brimfield. The company is about halfway through a year-long study of wind patterns on the Brimfield mountain to determine if the site is suitable.
First Wind operates seven wind farms in the United States, but none in Massachusetts. The Republican was invited to tour the company’s nearest site at Stetson Mountain.
The General-Electric-manufactured towers in Maine represent the state-of-the-art in the wind industry, according to Hare. He said there is no question the technology is leaps and bounds ahead of 10, or even five, years ago.
Each is fully automated and has an internal computer that measures wind speed and direction and can adjust the tower to maximize power production. The nacelle at the top of the tower can turn in any direction, and the individual propeller blades can pitch in or out to grab as much wind as they can, he said.
“They are very sophisticated,” he said.
From the ground to the top of the nacelle, the mechanical hub where the propeller is attached, the towers are 262 feet tall. With the propeller outstretched to its highest point, they are close to 400 feet tall, Hare said.
Standing directly underneath one turbine, the only sound that can be heard is a low “whoosh-whoosh” – and that is nearly drowned out by the sound of the wind itself.
The sound is not anything mechanical as much as it is the air wrapping around the moving blades, Hare said.
The most noise generated by the compound comes not from any of the turbines but from the transformer station which takes electricity from the towers and feeds it to the electrical grid. The transformer emits a buzzing noise that is loud up close but drops off quickly as you move away.
The Brimfield project may one day generate electricity from wind power, but for now all it is generating is controversy.
Opponents of the project, many rallying under the banner of a group called “No Brimfield Wind,” charge that the turbines are loud, the construction will alter the face of the rural mountainside and the towers will destroy the scenic quality of the area.
In September, more than 40 Brimfield residents packed a meeting of the town’s Board of Selectmen to condemn the First Wind proposal. At the conclusion of the three-hour meeting, selectmen voted not to accept a $30,000 payment from First Wind to help pay for research on the project.
Although several members of the opposition saw the vote as a defeat for the project, planning continues.
John Lamontagne, director of corporate communications for First Wind, said the Brimfield project remains on track despite the selectmen’s vote.
“That project is in its earliest stages,” he said. “There’s been a lot of uproar from folks, but it’s still pretty darn early.”
A meteorological tower was installed in April on West Mountain to gather information for a year on wind patterns. It can’t be determined if the site is even feasible until that study is completed.
“We have a lot of studies to do in terms of the environment, sound, (and) engineering – all kinds of things before a single shovel of dirt gets turned,” he said.
If the company finds Brimfield is suitable and the project is approved, the site could produce in the vicinity of 20 to 25 megawatts, depending on the number of turbines, according to Lamontagne.
It has yet to be determined what type of turbines will be used in Brimfield, where they will be placed or how many will fit, he said.
First Wind has not publicly stated the cost of the Brimfield project, citing too many variables at this point.
The 55 turbines that run the length of Stetson Mountain on both sides of Route 169 have been in operation for not quite a year.
The wind farm is actually divided into two parts. Stetson I, which consists of 38 turbines opened in January. Stetson II has 17 turbines, and it has been online since March. All together, they have the capacity to produce 82 megawatts of electricity, or enough to provide power for 33,000 homes.
And on the day of the tour, Stetson, thanks to some 20 mph to 30 mph winds, was operating at pretty close to capacity.
“Right now, we’re making 78 megawatts. We’re at 99.7 percent capacity,” Hare said. “We’re making a lot of power.”
With winter fast approaching, Hare said the wind is certain to pick up, and they will be there to capture it.
“Starting now from this time of year through winter, we’ll probably produce that amount more often,” he said. “Summer is the slow time.”
Several times during the tour, the wind could be heard howling outside the operations building, and sometimes gusts were strong enough to shake the walls.
Each time it did, Hare would kind of giggle.
Maine is the New England leader in wind-generated power due to equal parts of remote space, strong winter winds and political will.
In 2007, Gov. John E. Baldacci opened the door with the creation of a task force to study the impact of wind farms with a goal of making the state a leader in the industry; go online to www.mainewindindustry.com to learn more. It has six farms in use, two more under construction and 10 more in development.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick has said he is committed to increasing wind operations in the Bay State. He set a goal for 2020 to have 2,000 megawatts of wind power, enough to power an estimated 800,000 homes, on line. That would include land-based operations like the one proposed in Brimfield, and off-shore facilities such as the controversial 130-turbine Cape Wind project on Nantucket Sound.
Patrick has long championed the growth of renewable energy like wind power as good for the environment and the economy while reducing greenhouse gases and creating jobs.
Stetson employs 12 people full-time, but has several contractors who work on a per-diem basis doing repairs and maintenance, Hare said.
Maine’s wind farms have not been free of controversy – before or after their construction.
According to news reports, a small group of protesters stood outside Stetson on the day of its grand opening.
And First Wind’s Mars Hills farm, a 28-turbine, 42-megawatt site located 70 miles north of Stetson, has been dogged by noise complaints since it opened in 2007.
In August 2009, 17 abutters filed a civil lawsuit against First Wind, citing continued noise as having affected property values and caused their health to suffer because of increased stress and anxiety.
One of the plaintiffs described the sound as a continual “phfoop, phfoop, phfoop” from the rotor blades. The case is pending.
And the parent company, First Wind Energy LLC, has had its own setbacks.
In late October, the company offered roughly 12 million shares of stock with an initial price offer of $18 to 20 per share. When potential investors offered to buy shares below that amount, First Wind withdrew the offer for the time being.
First Wind Chief Executive Officer Paul Gaynor issued a statement in which he said the terms offered by investors “were not attractive to the company at this time.”
The failure to gain investors will not change the approach the company is taking in Brimfield or with any other projects in development, Lamontagne said.
Beyond the number of turbines, there is a key difference between Stetson and Brimfield.
Stetson Mountain, located some 90 miles northeast of Bangor, is practically in the middle of nowhere. Its two closest towns are Springfield, 30 miles to the south, and Danforth, 26 miles to the north. For miles in any direction, there appears to be no development.
The site on West Mountain in Brimfield is about two miles north of the town center, and opponents say they have counted 79 homes located within a quarter-mile of the proposed wind farm.
Lamontagne, in comparing the two sites, says the remoteness of Stetson Mountain is probably why that project did not generate nearly as much “push-back as other places.”
Still, Stetson Mountain did experience major changes. Once the site of a former logging operation, narrow dirt roads had to be widened and graded to allow access for heavy equipment, trailers and cranes.
And, an object as top-heavy as a wind turbine needs a substantial anchor to stay put. It meant digging down as much as 40 feet to anchor the turbines to rock an clearing of foliage and leveling circle to match the 253-foot diameter of the blades, Hare said. The result is each turbine sits in a gravel circle roughly a little bigger than an acre.
The road for Stetson had to be widened significantly, but once the towers were installed and the heavy equipment removed, nature is being allowed to reclaim where the road was widened, LaMontagne said.
Workers see all sorts of game, deer, turkeys and the occasional bear walking along the area near the towers. Sometimes they also see hunters, which is why the employees have taken to wearing orange vests as a precaution during hunting season, according to Hare.
He said they’ve had no problems with dead birds at any of the towers except initially at the tower closest to the control building. Someone reasoned that birds were attracted to the lights on the building, causing them to fly into the path of the turbines, he said. The lights are now kept off most of the time, and there are no more dead birds, he said.
Lamontagne maintains any sort of power system comes with a trade-off. Coal creates emissions, and nuclear power creates radioactive waste. Turbines are tall and can be seen for miles.
“They’re big. And, that’s about it,” he said. “They are not polluting. They are not generating waste.”
Hare, a native of the Midwest who has worked at 10 wind facilities, said people in the Northeast have a different view of wind technology because it is so new to the region.
“There are thousands of them in the Midwest. Being here, I can see people don’t understand what (wind power) is,” he said. “Out there, people welcome them. They’ve got thousands of turbines, and people understand them.”
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