Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Can Wind Power Lift Maine's Economy?

New England’s largest wind power producer broke ground Monday on the second phase of a project near Danforth that local officials hope is another step toward making rural Washington County an energy hub.

First Wind plans to erect 17 wind turbines on Jimmey Mountain and Owl Mountain north of Route 169 in northern Washington County. The project, dubbed Stetson II, will extend First Wind’s 38-turbine Stetson Wind facility that was completed earlier this year on a ridgeline just south of Route 169.

Massachusetts-based First Wind received regulatory approval for Stetson II earlier this year but, like other wind power companies nationwide, had trouble lining up financing after the lending market for wind energy projects collapsed because of the recession.

But the company received more than $40 million in federal stimulus money to jumpstart Stetson II. First Wind officials said Monday that they hope to complete construction on the $60 million project and connect it to the electricity grid by next spring.

“Our projects help spur the surrounding region’s economic activity and growth,” Paul Gaynor, CEO of First Wind, said in a statement. “Today’s groundbreaking and the jobs it is creating would not be happening without the recovery act tax credits granted to us earlier this fall.”

The roughly 400-foot-tall turbines and blades in Stetson II are rated to generate 1.5 megawatts of electricity each, giving the entire project a maximum output of 25.5 megawatts. But critics point out that because of the intermittent nature of wind, wind power facilities typically do not come close to producing their maximum output.

Critics of the wind industry in Maine also question whether the facilities provide a permanent boost to the host region’s economy after construction is complete. Once operational, wind energy facilities employ only a handful of full-time workers.

But Chris Gardner, a Washington County commissioner who attended Monday’s event, said in a phone interview it would be wrong to “belittle” any permanent jobs that are created in that part of Maine.

“I’m certain those are very valuable to the 10 to 15 people able to get those jobs and then live and work in Washington County,” Gardner said.

Gardner hopes First Wind’s additional investment helps send a positive message to other energy companies that Washington County is “open for business.”

“We have an industry that is interested [in the region] and I think we owe it to the people of Washington County to extend our hand out to that industry,” he said.

Not everyone agrees that the wind industry’s growing interest in Maine is a good thing.

On Monday, about a half-dozen people protested First Wind’s latest project, accusing the company and state officials of deceiving the public about the impacts of industrial wind power and its benefits.

Among them were Marilyn and Harrison Roper, who will be able to see — and likely hear — the massive turbines located between 1.5 miles and 2 miles from a camp and properties they own on both Upper Hot Brook Lake and Lower Hot Brook Lake.

Marilyn Roper said by phone Monday that she is most concerned about how low-frequency noise and vibrations from the spinning blades will affect local residents and wildlife, including fish in the lakes. Some people living near wind power facilities claim the noise and vibrations make them physically ill.

Roper said she and her husband are very pro-environment, powering their Houlton home with solar energy and living “off the grid” at camp. But she questioned the “greenness” of inland wind farms that require permanent clearings of carbon dioxide-absorbing trees and that work only when the wind blows.

“We don’t have a problem with these offshore, where the wind is strong and constant,” Roper said. “But that is not the case with these inland wind farms.”

But Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said he believes energy could be a major industry for Washington County. Raye and other local officials are fighting to bring liquefied natural gas terminals to the Passamaquoddy Bay region. Also Monday, Ocean Renewable Power Co. received a $150,000 federal grant to continue developing tidal power technology that would be deployed in Cobscook Bay.

“Washington County could be poised to become a major player in energy,” Raye said.

In addition to the original Stetson project, First Wind also operates a 28-turbine wind power facility in the Aroostook County town of Mars Hill. The company also is in the process of seeking regulatory approval or financing for several other projects in Maine, including a 40-turbine wind farm on Rollins Mountain in Burlington, Lincoln, Lee and Winn. That project has also encountered opposition from some local residents and property owners.

The only other large-scale wind energy project operating in Maine is a 22-turbine facility located on Kibby Mountain in the western part of the state.

TransCanada plans to add another 22 turbines on Kibby Mountain over the next year.

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