Officials at First Wind in Boston say there’s one big reason the company has lasted a decade now, while others in the clean energy space have failed in recent years: Namely, they sell energy, not a just piece of the energy supply chain.
The clean energy industry has been hit with the bankruptcies of solar panel manufacturers Solyndra and Evergreen last year, and, just last month, that of Boston-based battery-maker A123. GT Advanced Technologies Inc. in New Hampshire said it was cutting jobs in preparation for what it said would be a “challenging” 2013.
First Wind has faced headwinds of its own. The company’s most recent proposal, the Bowers Wind project located in the Penobscot and Washington counties of northern Maine, was voted down this spring after opposition from nearby property-owners.
But the 185-employee company has grown in revenue since it was founded in 2002, and is now pitching a scaled-down version of the Bowers Wind project which it hopes to have approved by early next year. If approved, it would be the company’s 16th in operation or under construction. Neil Kiely, director of development for First Wind, told Mass High Tech that the company’s seen success in a sector known for headline-grabbing collapses because it works with a proven technology, and the end product is simply electricity.
“One thing that distinguishes us (from other energy companies like A123) is that we are an independent power producer with real revenue,” said Kiely. “We don’t make widgets, and hope other people buy our widgets.”
While the company did not disclose revenue, it briefly considered going public in 2010 and filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission to that effect. According to the filing, in 2007 (when the company had only a handful of the 16 wind farms it now operates), the company had revenues of $12 million and total assets of $851 million.
Kiely said the Bowers project is important largely because of the site’s location: at a relatively low elevation (for wind farms), it avoids the more fragile ecoysystems of high elevations. It’s also just eight miles from an existing transmission system, reducing the need to build power lines, and in an area which already has another wind farm, so residents know what to expect, he said.
“This community is extremely well-informed about what it means to have a wind farm,” said Kiely. “They are extremely supportive of the project.”
The major complaint in the springtime was the visual impact the farm will have, said Kiely, who added that the opposition came largely from out-of-state residents who own summer homes in the area through a group called the Partnership for the Preservation of the Downeast Lakes Watershed (PPDLW).
In response to complaints, the company reduced the farm from 27 to 16 wind towers, a reduction made possible by newer, more efficient turbines. The project as a whole is expected to generate enough clean electricity to power about 25,000 homes per year. It will also pay about $6 million in taxes over the 20-year life of the project, and another $2.8 million in community benefits in the form of payments to Carroll Plantation and Washington County, as well as energy rebates to residents, according to the company.
“This is a $100 million project that would be located in rural Maine and has the potential to put nearly 100 Maine companies and hundreds of Mainers to work during the construction phase, with several permanent positions for the life of the project,” said Matt Kearns, Vice President of Northeast Business Development for First Wind. “The wind industry has invested more than $1 billion in Maine over the last few years and with projects like this we can continue to invest in Maine companies, communities, students and organizations.”
Whereas the previous proposal was voted down by the Land Use Regulation Commission of Lincoln, Maine, due to changes in state law, this time it will go before a regulatory committee of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection which is mandated to approve the project if it meets certain, specific criteria. The PPDLW is still opposed to the project, and hopes to force a public hearing on the matter, according to the group’s website.
But Kiely said the company has gone to great lengths to not only address the concerns over the visual impact – for instance, the towers are planned to include lights that only turn on when planes are nearby – but also has tried to show that the project won’t have a negative impact on tourism. The company hired a consultant to survey people who use the lakes in sight of other nearby wind warms, and found that 95 percent of them said the presence of wind farms had no effect on their decision to visit the area. First Wind is also working with snowmobile groups to connect more than 500 miles of trails in the area, since, Kiely says, snowmobilers seek out wind farms to ride through.
Kiely said the wind farm business is growing as turbines become more efficient and able to operate and lower winds speeds. But one big reason the sector has succeeded where others have failed is because it’s a more mature industry, he said.
“We’re not in the research and development business,” he said. “This is all proven technology.”
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