The final leg to the summit of Partridge Peak, elevation 1,985 feet, in northern Oxford County, is an easy walk, thanks to the massive road built to handle the huge bulldozers, excavators, cranes and other heavy-duty construction rigs necessary to destroy a four-mile ridgeline of mountain tops. To the west and below is Roxbury Pond, surrounded by miles of working forest. Hills, slopes and peaks of various heights and girth rise from the landscape, reaching for the vast Maine sky. To the east, Mount Blue. To the north, Tumbledown. To the south, Whitecap, Black and the Twin Mountains.
Partridge Peak, and the adjoining Flathead Mountain and Record Hill, offer amazing panoramas and breathtaking views of bucolic Maine countryside, provided you can ignore the constant growl and rumble of the 22 giant wind turbines atop the three linked ridgelines. These 325-foot tall white monsters are four times the height of the Portland Observatory on Munjoy Hill. Or one-and-a-half times the height of Franklin Towers, Maine’s tallest building.
The idea to blast ledge and create giant landing pads to install these behemoths amid this outdoor paradise came from Senate candidate Angus King. For the last five years, King and other industrial wind developers have been targeting rural communities in Maine. These hucksters all sing the same song, claiming wind farms create jobs and produce huge amounts of green electricity while reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil. But that’s just a sales pitch. The reality is much different. Corporate industrialists and energy speculators are green-washing the masses while they continue to milk Maine’s natural resources for every dollar and dime they can, and make the public pay for their whims and whistles.
Don’t believe me? Keep an eye on your power bill. The Public Utilities Commission just approved a whopping 20 percent hike for Central Maine Power transmission rates and 12 percent for Bangor Hydro. A good chunk of the increased revenue from customers will pay for so-called “transmission reliability upgrades,” including the new substation and powerlines in Roxbury that connect King’s pet windmills to the grid.
The cash for King’s turbines, by the way, came via a $103 million loan, backed by U.S. taxpayers, as part of a Department of Energy program intended to subsidize “innovative” projects. King’s endeavor, called “Record Hill Wind Park,” qualified for the loan, apparently, because the wind turbines were to be run by new software that allowed for auto-blade adjustments during stormy weather. The 22 turbines themselves aren’t anything special. Built by Siemens, the SWT-2.3-93 was first introduced in 2005 and is considered an off-the-shelf model, bought in Germany, chockfull of instruments and devices built in China and other Asian, factory-based nations.
In March, congressional investigators released an initial report on the DOE loan program that funded Record Hill and questioned the alleged innovation connected to the project. And investigators also wondered why the Yale Trust, one of King’s silent partners, didn’t fund the deal with money from its own deep pockets. King, however, has repeatedly insisted his project should be considered innovative and says his company did nothing wrong by getting the loan.
The turbine blades have been spinning on a fairly regular basis for the last seven months. And now, thanks to the U.S. government’s recovery.gov website, the details on how King and company spent the $103 million are readily available. The numbers are surprising. Despite the hype and promise of financial benefit for the local economy, less than 25 percent of the project’s budget went to Maine vendors.
According to the government report, about 58 percent of the cash, or $59.1 million went to the multi-national conglomerate Siemens to pay for the 22 wind turbines that were manufactured overseas and shipped into Searsport. Twenty-one of the 31 companies that received money for the project were from outside Maine. And the majority of them were global corporations. Granted, much of the labor on Big Energy projects requires special skills – mostly in consulting, construction management and engineering – that Maine’s workforce is lacking. But that doesn’t explain why $737,673 was spent on New Hampshire companies for land clearing, when there are plenty of capable Mainers that could do the same job. And even though Reed and Reed, the construction mega-company from Woolwich, was paid $25.1 million to build the project, many of R&R’s hired hands, from trucking firms to subcontractors, came from away.
Even more curious, according to the government’s reports, were the actual job numbers. “A total of 467 people have worked on site … including equipment operators, day laborers, engineers, foremen, linemen, skilled turbine technicians, and foresters. Note that some of these people were onsite exclusively prior to execution of the loan agreement, and at least some of these jobs could measure their duration in days rather than weeks or months.”
Also, according to the government report, once the project was built and spinning, zero humans were employed by the wind farm. Thanks to a spider web of LLCs and corporate entities (registered in New Hampshire and Delaware, but none in Maine), the handful of people who run the operation actually work for Wagner Forestry Management, a New Hampshire company that also partnered with King and Yale Trust on the Record Hill project.
Ask the locals about job creation and they shrug their shoulders. Perhaps, one fella said, there are a couple technicians manning the brand-new substation. Plus, there is a local spokesman for the project, although he didn’t return multiple phone calls seeking comment.
Frequently, city-dwellers ask why I’m anti-wind power. After all, they say, windmills are better than oil wells. My answer always starts with a long sigh. I’m gonna put this in all caps, so it’s perfectly clear: INDUSTRIAL WIND DOES NOT DIMINISH THE USE OF OIL. In New England, electricity is created via hydropower and natural gas. Plus, the carbon imprint of the construction process was huge. Just building the roads and getting the equipment on-site was an incredibly elaborate and costly affair. Coupled with the rock-blasting and clear-cutting atop the mountains, it’ll be awhile before the negative environmental impacts of any large-scale wind installation will be erased.
It’s very difficult to counter the constant propaganda hyped by smooth-talking windbags. Many intelligent and thoughtful Mainers get hypnotized by the concept’s green-sheen: free power from the wind. Politicians and regulators, however, get grabbed by another sort of green. Cash. For some reason, Americans have been convinced the path to energy independence is paved with money and tax breaks for corporate entities and multi-nationals. We’ve been suckered into subsidizing electricity generation that is unreliable and over-hyped.
Consider, for instance, Big Wind’s issue with “plate capacity.” All through the permitting process and public relations blitz for Record Hill, King and company repeatedly stated the “plate capacity” would be about 50.6 megawatts, enough to power all the homes in Oxford County. But that sort of juice could only be generated if the wind blew 24-7 with speeds between 13 and 25 mph every day of the year. Unless the laws of nature are suddenly suspended, that’s not gonna happen. Wind turbines, according to industry standards, usually generate about 25 percent of the “plate capacity.” In the case of Record Hill, that would mean an annual 12.65 megawatts, dramatically lower than the oft-touted stats by King.
Of course, wind developers understand the plate capacity is a meaningless number. They just don’t admit it in public. Instead, they keep repeating that “Maine is the Saudi Arabia of wind,” despite federal statistics that places Maine in the lower third of states in terms of wind potential.
Despite all the bragging up front, wind companies don’t like to disclose the actual power generation of their farms. Now that the turbines have been on-line for seven months, I wanted to know how much juice was generated atop Record Hill, but Wagner Forestry Management refused to release any numbers. And detailed searches of government energy websites failed to reveal the actual data. King’s campaign, however, recently told reporters that the windmills were allegedly generating profit.
For homeowners in the neighborhood of wind farms like Record Hill, fate – and the lay of the land – determine whether or not life becomes disrupted by the “whoosh-whoosh” of spinning giant blades slicing through the air in the distance. Some find the low-frequency noise irritating and annoying, causing stress and sleep deprivation. To others, it’s barely audible, except as a murmuring incessant hum.
Route 17 headed north out of Roxbury is an officially designated “Scenic Highway,” which is true enough until a certain slight bend in the road. And then, the first turbine appears over lush hayfields and a ridge. Suddenly, a whole slew of the rigs become visible. And on bright days, the sunlight reflects off the blades, giving them a shiny, almost silver, appearance with a tendency to distract drivers.
The array of turbines stops at the Byron town line. Voters there had rejected King and his cronies’ attempts to locate several of the turbines within town limits on the northern end of Record Hill. But they’re still impacted by the wind farm’s location and don’t benefit from lower property taxes or the $400 in annual payments (in lieu of free power) the wind barons give Roxbury residents.
Consider the folks who live on Little Ellis Pond, a quintessential, off-the-grid Maine lake community in the heart of Byron, not far from the Swift River and Coos Canyon, a good spot for gold panning. Two primitive roads – lined with traditional and charming small Maine camps – stretch half the length of the pond. Residents on East Shore Drive don’t see the turbines, unless they crane their necks and look over their shoulders. But they hear ’em.
Those on the West Shore Drive have it much worse. Under certain weather conditions, the sound from turbines gets amplified, bouncing across the water and waves. And from most vantage points on the pond and western shore, the turbines spookily loom over the ridgeline, omni-present and watching. A standing army of colossal machines, spinning subsidized dollars out of thin air for the corporatists. And when the sun sets, the almost-dark sky is pierced by a string of red tower lights, seemingly floating over the ridgeline. Blinking on and off every couple seconds.
The main gate to Record Hill was unlocked, so I drove up to the secondary gate, walked the rest of the way in and spent an hour wandering among the 22 turbines. For the last three years, since moving from eastern Maine to western Maine, I’ve been studying and researching the issue of industrial wind. But this was my first visit to an actual turbine farm.
Standing 100 feet in front of “Tower 20,” the blades turned at a moderate speed and filled the air with a song reminiscent of a jet engine taxiing on a runway. Not loud enough to force you to cover your ears, but a steady, ceaseless sound that was unpleasant, out-of-place and scarily unnatural, considering the locale.
Next to the tower, you hear a different, louder hum. Specifically, the double exhaust fans that run all the time, cooling the tower and venting the heat created by the spinning rotors. Which reminded me of one of the major weaknesses of relying upon wind power. In the case of a widespread blackout, the windmills can’t do their job because they depend on power, from the grid, to run the fans and the robots that change the pitch and position of the giant propellers.
I walked away from the turbine and sat on a nearby boulder to consider the other-worldly scene. The landscape had the flat and barren feel and look of an industrial park or oil tank farm. In small areas, vestiges of the old mountaintop remain. Occasional beauty patches of trees and ledge, left untouched by the humans and their machines who destroyed the rest of the ridgeline. Power lines, some above ground, some below, traverse the three mountains, accompanied by wide roads and culverts.
Here’s another example of the lunacy of Big Wind: Despite all the destruction and construction, each wind turbine still requires a backup source of power generation – usually gas-fired plants or hydro – because the wind developers’ contracts with the grid owners requires them to provide a steady stream of juice. So when the wind ain’t blowing, the other power plants have to go online or increase production.
During my walk to the summit, I saw only one bird. A lone morning dove perched upon a wire. While I sat in the presence of the turbines, I understood why there weren’t any other critters around. Even though eagles, bats and migratory flocks often die because of the massive knives slicing through their airspace, most local wildlife has no interest in hanging around the mammoth machines. The vibrations, whirrs and hums frightens them away.
Traditionally, this ridgeline was a hunting ground, popular with locals. But now, all outdoor recreational activities are banned within 500 feet of the rigs, which, because of the terrain, renders the three mountains useless for fun and games. No matter, though, since the place has been transformed into a noisy ecological dead zone.
Maine’s official renewable energy policy calls for large-scale wind development. Under the legislatively-approved plans, power-mongers hope to install almost 2,000 turbines on mountains and ridges across the state. That means the Record Hill project – at a cost of over a hundred million bucks – constitutes a mere 1 percent of the state’s plan.
It’s been hot in western Maine for the last couple of weeks. Often times, nary a breeze and the turbines barely moved, except during the occasional gusty thunderstorms. None of the folks I spoke with who live around Record Hill wanted to go on the record. Not worth the trouble and anger it might cause among the neighbors. After all, it’s a done deal. This line of windmills is here for good.
If a hundred more of these wind parks are built, we might as well forget about the beauty, wilderness and sense of place that makes Maine so special. We need to re-examine the dollars and sense of making devastating changes to the natural world around us in order to enrich corporatists and Big Energy who don’t give a damn about Maine or its people. Perhaps it’s time for a statewide moratorium on future wind developments. Problem is, the one-percenters and crony capitalists are willing to spread cash among elected leaders in order to keep feeding on the trough of public subsidies and tax breaks.
But there is a solution, thanks to Maine’s citizen referendum process. Maybe it’s time to “Ban Industrial Wind.” Who wants to help?
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