VINALHAVEN, Maine — Hundreds of islanders gathered Monday morning at a 75-acre construction site in a misty spruce forest to celebrate the groundbreaking of the Fox Islands Wind project.
By next Thanksgiving, developers said, three turbines here will take advantage of the high offshore winds to produce enough electricity to provide power to the 1,500 year-round residents of Vinalhaven and North Haven islands. And many think that when the windmills are whirring on Vinalhaven, other island communities will want turbines of their own.
“I think it’s a wonderful project,” said Hazel Smith, whose property lies close to the construction site. “I’ve always loved the windmills. It’s cheaper power; and to me, they’re peaceful. Everybody came together for this. Everyone is looking forward to it.”
Unusually for a planned wind-power facility in Maine, Smith’s enthusiasm seems the rule and not the exception here. When members of the Fox Islands Electric Cooperative voted last summer on whether to go ahead with the $14 million project, the result was an astounding 383 people in favor to just five against.
“That could be one for the record books,” said Addison Ames of Vinalhaven, a board member of the electricity co-op. He said that with construction beginning and the turbines scheduled to arrive on the island in August, he’s feeling “exhilarated and nervous, all at the same time.”
“There’s still a lot to do,” Ames said. “But we’ve overcome a major hurdle at this point.”
Islanders have been talking about putting up wind turbines for at least six years, he said, although the first attempt to start a big wind project failed because of a lack of community interest. But that changed after Hurricane Katrina tore up infrastructure on the Gulf of Mexico in 2005, which caused natural gas prices to go through the roof, Ames said. One island pizzeria saw its monthly electric bill shoot to $1,200 a month.
“That made this place unlivable,” Ames said.
Major changes had to be made on the islands, and quickly, he said. That is where George Baker, CEO of Fox Islands Wind and summer resident of Frenchboro, came in. Baker, a Harvard professor, has been a driving force in getting the windmill project off the ground so quickly. Officials from the Island Institute, Cianbro Corp. and other companies also pulled together to make the islands’ windmill dreams less quixotic.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, who is from neighboring North Haven, said the rest of the country could take a lesson from Maine’s island communities when it comes to renewable energy. Pingree, wearing a green hard hat, spoke about the energy bill the House of Representatives just passed — and said she was “very proud” to tell the U.S. secretary of energy and others about what is happening on Vinalhaven.
“I tell them the story of how hard this community worked,” she said. “We can produce our own power. We can be energy self-sufficient. We are starting a little revolution in energy right here.”