OAKFIELD, Maine – Nearly eight years after developers first proposed erecting wind turbines on the hills of Oakfield, a $369 million renewable energy project has been completed.
All 48 3-megawatt Vestas turbines are up and will be online by the end of the month, according to Peter Garrett, superintendent of the Oakfield wind project for SunEdison Inc.
“The turbines are now going online and three of the four circuits are now energized,” Garrett said during a tour of the wind farm on Sept. 9. “Within the next couple of weeks, people should be able to see all of the turbines making power.”
Situated about 2.5 miles from the center of Oakfield in southern Aroostook, the turbines will be capable of generating a total of almost 150 megawatts of power, which has been contracted to companies in Massachusetts.
The massive turbines, which stand 456 feet tall from base to blade tip at the highest point, have the capacity to produce energy to power more than 50,000 homes. A total of 500 acres were cleared for the wind farm, making it the largest such project in the state to date.
Electricity generated from the turbines will be transmitted along a 59-mile line to a substation in Chester, near Lincoln.
“This project has gone very well and we are slightly ahead of schedule,” Garrett said. “At our peak we had about 200 employees a day, totalling 390,000 man hours on this project. We expect to be fully operational within the next month.”
Construction began in December 2013 and involved nearly 900 employees over the subsequent months, predominantly sub-contractors, many of whom were local workers. Those workers were busy building new roads and the electrical collection system and creating the bases for the turbines. Many of the roads that were built during the construction phase will be closed and reseeded to a natural state, leaving no trace of the building stage.
Garrett said that during construction, crews regularly saw a multitude of wildlife, ranging from deer to rabbits and birds.
“The wildlife really seems to adjust to us,” he said. “They are always here when we are working.”
Thomas Frazier of Island Falls, a wind farm support specialist, was one of the many local residents employed by the project. Frazier worked with many of the subcontractors and environmentalists who came on site to do bird and bat studies.
“Being able to come back to my hometown and work on a project of this caliber has given me a good feeling of pride,” he said.
The project began with First Wind, which originally was granted permission from the town and DEP for 34 turbines along Sam Drew Mountain in September 2009. Construction was pushed off, however, when the Martha A. Powers Land Trust challenged the project in court on a number of issues, including what it considered inadequate sound level restrictions. That legal challenge ended when the Maine Supreme Judicial Court rejected the land trust’s last appeal in March 2011.
After construction was well underway, SunEdison bought First Wind for $2.4 billion in January 2015, acquiring with the purchase the Oakfield project and the company’s five wind farms in operation in Maine – one in Mars Hill, two sites on Stetson Mountain, Rollins Wind near Lincoln and Bull Hill Wind near Eastbrook in Township 16.
“It has taken us a long time to get to this point, so it is kind of a thrill to see the project done and the turbines up and running,” said John Lamontagne, now a spokesperson for SunEdison in Boston, who has been with the Oakfield project since the beginning in 2008.
Not without its detractors
While supporters tout the benefits of renewable energy, some area residents have opposed the project for a variety of reasons, ranging from turbine noise to the impact of the wind farm on the rural scenery.
“I am still opposed to it and I will never change my mind,” said Donna Davidge of Island Falls, a member of Protect Our Lakes, a group formed three years ago to fight the project.
Protect Our Lakes also opposed the proposal in court, where the group argued that the turbines would spoil the views from Pleasant and Mattawamkeag lakes, which are important to the local tourism economy. The organization also suggested the turbines could harm bats and eagles flying too close to the blades.
“I am still trying to educate people about wind turbines and what they do not only in Oakfield, but globally,” said Davidge, who runs a yoga retreat in Island Falls. “I feel that they are toxic. I feel that they look terrible, and that they make noise and I am heartbroken to see them up there spoiling our view like that.”
David Stewart, who lives in Oakfield, also disapproves of the turbines, but only because he believes that they “wreck” the beauty of the area.
“It is difficult because I think it is great that they bring more jobs to the area and it is better than having a coal mine or a nuclear plant,” he said. “But I just hate looking at them up there in the distance when I go to Mars Hill and now around town and things.”
Candace Rupley, another Island Falls resident and Protect Our Lakes member, spoke out against the turbines because her family owns two lots on Pleasant Lake in Island Falls and she said she “did not want to see the beautiful scenery blighted by the turbines.”
“I feel people are really only thinking about cash in their pockets,” she said recently. “I think that they are only thinking about jobs and not what the turbines are going to sound like when they are all running.”
Rupley said that some of her neighbors stopped speaking to her because of her opinions about wind power and her involvement in opposing the project’s construction in Oakfield. Davidge too said that speaking out has led to repercussions, including abusive online comments and negative reactions toward her in the community.
“But I will never come over to the other side,” Davidge said.
Lamontagne of SunEdison said during the tour earlier this month that developers worked closely with the town to solicit significant community input in designing the project. As part of the local review process, First Wind made numerous commitments that go beyond what is required under state law and incorporated those changes into the DEP application, he said.
Town Manager Dale Morris said a side benefit of the project is that it forced the town’s board of selectmen to come up with several new zoning ordinances.
“We had nothing in terms of ordinances for land use management prior to this,” Morris said.
A sound review also took place after some of the turbines were operating to determine what distance the noise traveled.
“If the tests showed sound went beyond the state requirements, [the company] had to negotiate with private landowners to get permission to exceed that state requirement,” Morris said, adding that the town had no part in those negotiations.
Morris said there were some people who expressed concerns about the noise that would be generated by the turbines once they were all in operation. Should the sound level exceed the state requirements, Morris said measures are in place to address that issue.
“I would say [SunEdison Inc.] did a pretty good mitigation plan,” Morris said. “But that is all up for debate with some people. There are some nonparticipating landowners, who are close to the turbines. We will have a sound complaint protocol in place, which is something the town negotiated with [SunEdison Inc].”
Lamontagne said SunEdison has a 24-hour toll free hotline – 888-786-3347 – for people to call if they have concerns about noise levels. “We will monitor and investigate sound concerns on an ongoing basis,” he said.
Morris said earlier this month that his office has received a few complaints over the wind turbines, especially after the first units went up. He said the majority of those people were residents of surrounding towns who expressed displeasure seeing the turbines along the hills of Oakfield.
“I have not really heard very much from the local residents,” Morris said.
Lamontagne said Oakfield was chosen for the project because of its location and the level of town support the concept received.
“We worked with the town for a bunch of years to develop some community benefit plans and it is also a good wind resource,” he said.
Benefits to the Oakfield community
The wind project has brought, and will continue to bring, significant economic benefits to the town of Oakfield and its residents. The town, which had a population of 737 as of the 2010 U.S. census, will receive $14.7 million in tax revenues over 20 years, and an additional $12 million in community benefit payments during that time span. The money the town receives goes to a special municipal fund, and can be used for town priorities such as a public safety building, fire engines and road improvements. Each year, at town meeting, residents will be asked how they wish to spend that year’s funds.
Morris said the town will receive an annual $540,000 payment, which is required to satisfy the community benefit clause of the environmental permit application with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. The first $540,000 community benefit payment already has been received by the town, while the second payment will be received once the project goes online in late September or early October. The town will then receive 18 additional annual payments.
Town officials previously identified 14 projects the community would be able to fund over that 20-year period with the money received. Among those projects are the construction of a centrally located fire station to replace an aging facility. Initially, Morris said the plan was to include a new town office as part of the public safety building, but according to state statute, tax increment financing funds cannot be used for a town office.
No specific timetable has been given for construction of the new fire station, since the project is still in the design stage.
Other projects envisioned by the town include replacement of fire equipment, including two new fire trucks, road reconstruction, capital improvements to the village area and construction of a new salt shed.
“The No. 1 revitalization has been to our public works department,” Morris said. “We have invested well over $400,000 in new equipment. Without that infusion of tax dollars, the public works department would be different than the way it is today. It has revitalized and transformed that department.”
He added that the town also was able to donate $15,000 to a veterans memorial.
In addition, Morris said any full-time resident who receives a Homestead Exemption on his tax bill will receive a check in the amount of about $2,100 a year for 20 years from the town. Seasonal residents – there are about 100 – will not receive the tax rebate. The remaining landowners, roughly 240 full-time residents in Oakfield, will receive the benefit, which must be claimed as taxable income.
With the average property tax bill in Oakfield at $970, most homeowners will have money left over after they pay their taxes, according to Morris. The current mil rate is $17.96, but that also is expected to go down starting in 2016 when SunEdison makes its first tax payment on roughly $216 million of taxable property, Morris said. The property up to this point has not been taxed at its full value, and thus has not reduced the mill rate for the town. Morris estimated the town stands to receive about $1.3 million in property tax revenue, in addition to the community benefit payments.
Bangor Daily News writer Jen Lynds contributed to this report.
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