DANFORTH, Maine — New England’s largest wind farm went on line Thursday highlighting what Gov. John Baldacci said makes Maine the region’s leader in the creation of clean, oil-free wind power.
Strong winds blowing at about noon along Stetson Mountain’s ridgeline were creating about 32 megawatts of power through First Wind of Massachusetts’ $60 million, 38-turbine project. First Wind officials expected to transmit the project’s capacity, 57 megawatts, to the New England grid by day’s end.
Combined with the company’s 28-megawatt Mars Hill farm, the Stetson operation makes Maine New England’s leading wind farm state, said Baldacci. The state’s first two wind farms are the cornerstone of the administration’s aggressive 3½-year pursuit of alternative energy.
“This is what I believe in passionately: more economic development, more jobs, more opportunity,” Baldacci said Thursday. “Maine should be a leader in this. Maine is willing to experiment, to try something new, and to change for the future while safeguarding its natural resources.”
Maine isn’t likely to lose that distinction. Though they represent only a fraction of the state’s total electricity use, wind farms that would produce more than 400 megawatts are being built or are under permit review for possible construction next year. At least another 230 megawatts are listed in early, or post-2010, development.
“They talk about this in Washington, D.C.,” Baldacci said, “but they deliver it in Washington County.”
Since it began a year ago, construction of the wind farm on Stetson Mountain and the installation of a power line from Danforth to Chester created about 350 full-time jobs. While only six full-time jobs will remain with the industrial site’s completion, the project to date represents at least $50 million spent within state lines, much of it in Washington County, First Wind officials said.
“You have put us on the map,” Washington County Commissioner Chris Gardner said as he thanked First Wind for its investment. He called the company “tremendous stewards of our environmental resources and, most importantly, the public trust.”
About 100 state and local officials, construction company representatives and local business owners attending Thursday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony appeared to agree with the governor’s sentiment.
But there also were 10 protesters at the project entrance.
Accompanied by residents of Mars Hill and Danforth, the Friends of Lincoln Lakes group, which opposes First Wind’s proposed Rollins Mountain wind farm, picketed what they considered the project’s rushed permit approvals, which they felt trampled citizens’ rights.
The group fears that wind farms will blight the landscape, lower property values and cause health problems associated with the turbines’ noise and light flicker.
“It seems that in the rush to get these things built, only our First Amendment rights exist, and this is our way of exercising them,” said Gary Steinberg of Lincoln. “It really comes down to who controls Maine — the corporations or the citizens? In the Constitution, only citizens’ rights exist.”
First Wind officials tout their work as planet saving. Stetson, they say, will produce the equivalent of the electricity needed to power 23,500 homes and what would be produced by burning about 331,000 barrels of oil a year. This in turn will eliminate the emission of some 76,000 tons of carbon dioxide.
Like Mars Hill, Stetson will produce about 30 percent of its capacity annually, given the variability of wind, said Ryan Chayters, a senior development associate with First Wind.
Yet the project’s industrial benefits will outweigh its environmental pluses, Baldacci said, if he and state legislators succeed in their next goal. That is to promote the delivery of lower-cost electricity to state forest products industry mainstays, mills such as Katahdin Paper Co. LLC and Lincoln Paper & Tissue LLC, and the residents of host towns.
The availability of cheaper electricity harvested from Maine’s winds could revitalize Maine’s manufacturing industries, said Kurt Adams, First Wind’s chief development officer and a Maine native.
“For many years, Maine was seen as the end of the economic pipeline,” Adams said. “For the first time in many years, we have a real opportunity to advance our economy.”
“This industry will go a long ways toward supporting Washington County in the future,” Gardner said.
The Governor’s Task Force on Wind Power Development set as goals having at least 2,000 megawatts of installed wind power capacity in Maine by 2015, and at least 3,000 megawatts by 2020, including at least 300 megawatts from offshore projects. The Legislature also passed regulations allowing for the fast-tracking of wind projects.
State officials are also working to lure wind power turbine and blade manufacturers to Maine.
Besides Mars Hill and Stetson, First Wind has applied for permits for a 40-turbine, 60-megawatt farm on Rollins Mountain in Burlington, Lincoln, Lee and Winn, and a 17-turbine, 25.5-megawatt extension to the Stetson project known as Stetson II.
If all goes well, construction of those projects will finish by January 2010, First Wind spokesman John Lamontagne said.
TransCanada’s 44-turbine, 132-megawatt project on Kibby Mountain in western Maine, which is under construction, is also expected to open next year. It will produce power equivalent to the needs of 50,000 homes.
Among other projects in development this year and possibly under construction in 2010 are First Wind’s 40-megawatt Longfellow project in Rumford; Horizon Wind Energy of Texas’ 50-megawatt project for Oakfield; and a 90-megawatt wind power project Endless Energy Corp. seeks to build near Carrabassett Valley.
First Wind’s Web site also indicates the company has two more projects totaling 230 megawatts in early development for undisclosed Maine locations.