October 27, 2013

Big county, big ambitions for wind in Maine

Aroostook County becomes a major hub for wind power development.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

E TOWNSHIP — Only 1,638 feet above sea level, Number Nine Mountain isn’t on any list of notable Maine peaks. Like adjacent Maple, Saddleback and Hedgehog mountains, Number Nine is a modest bump in the vast woodlands that stretch as far as the eye can see in this corner of central Aroostook County.

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The Mars Hill wind farm, seen Wednesday, October 16, 2013, stretches the length of Mars Hill Mountain.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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From the back steps of her father’s camp on Number Nine Lake in Township 9, Range 3, Diane Libby looks out over the landscape that she worries will be adversely affected by a $500 million wind turbine project – the largest in New England – proposed by EDP Renewables. At top, turbines populate the ridges of Mars Hill Mountain in eastern Aroostook County, where First Wind built a large-scale project in 2007.

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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In autumn, the hills form a golden backdrop for tiny Number Nine Lake and the two dozen camps that ring its shores.

Over time, the 12-mile gravel road from Bridgewater to the lake has been widened for logging trucks. Electricity – which comes from nearby Canada because Aroostook County isn’t connected to the U.S. power grid – arrives on a single pole run.

This seems an unlikely place to build New England’s largest wind energy project. But this is where EDP Renewables, part of a global energy company, plans to erect a $500 million wind farm to generate power for consumers in Connecticut. The project, featuring 125 towers with blade tips that could reach 400 feet in the air, would be scattered for miles across the hills and have a capacity of 250 megawatts of power – enough to run 74,000 homes for a year.

EDP Renewables is not alone here. Twenty-five miles to the south, on wooded hills that surround the pasture and cropland of Oakfield, Boston-based First Wind is poised to start construction on a $400 million wind farm. The 50 turbines there will have the capacity to generate 150 megawatts, and fulfill contract agreements with utilities in Massachusetts.

Both companies say they see the potential for hundreds of additional megawatts of capacity in Aroostook County, and are willing to spend tens of millions of dollars to hook into the New England grid. The two projects, as well as others that may come, have the potential to create a major hub for wind power in an area better known for its potatoes, long winters and access to Maine’s North Woods.

The trend is being driven by new state policies in southern New England, which are compelling utilities to sign long-term contracts for unprecedented amounts of renewable power. At the same time, modern turbine technology has lowered the per-hour cost of a kilowatt, making wind more competitive with other sources of energy, such as natural gas.

The combination of these factors has finally made it economical, developers say, to build the expensive transmission lines needed to send Aroostook’s wind to the U.S. market and, in the process, bring badly needed revenue to one of the poorest parts of Maine.

“Northern Maine is routinely referred to as the holy grail,” said Katie Chapman, EDP’s project manager for the Number Nine Wind Farm. “The limiting factor is transmission.”

Chapman’s company plans to build a 40-mile line that can handle 1,000 megawatts of energy, an oversized connection that hints at the desire for future projects. First Wind is planning a 59-mile line that could cost $80 million, a fifth of the total Oakfield project. These lines eventually could be operated by other companies, or help integrate wind into larger plans to move power from Canadian hydroelectric dams to southern New England.

Developers like Aroostook County for its remote setting, away from tourism centers and high-value mountains. The hills here may be small and spread around, but it turns out this topography is good for wind power production. The vast open spaces let breezes pick up speed across the landscape and arrive at the wind farm with less turbulence. That translates into “cleaner” wind. Today’s taller turbines and bigger blades can extract energy from this wind with efficiencies that were unheard of five years ago.

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Additional Photos

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Jim Sholler, a former Oakfield selectman who chaired the town’s wind farm review committee, says some of the money the town receives as part of its deal with First Wind will go toward purchasing a new fire truck and building a new station.

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Dave Fowler, New England development director for First Wind, walks along a ridge in the Oakfield Hills this month. Thanks in part to a lucrative community benefits package, Oakfield has embraced plans by the company to build a 50-turbine wind farm scheduled to be online by 2015.

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Rodney Jones of Fort Fairfield stands on the dock of his wife’s family’s camp on Number Nine Lake in Township 9, Range 3 in central Aroostook County. Jones said he opposes a wind farm proposed by EDP Renewables. “Nobody wants to see windmills along the lake,” he said.

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Town Manager Dale Morris says he’s proud of Oakfield’s deal with First Wind. “This is stabilizing the town,” he said. “Done the right way, it’s setting Oakfield up for quite some time.” For years, there hasn’t been enough revenue to pave the roads.

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Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer The Mars Hill wind farm, active since 2007, offers Aroostook County residents a glimpse of a large-scale operation. Officials with First Wind say the lessons from Mars Hill led the company to increase turbine setbacks and seek more community input.

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