VINALHAVEN, Maine — Dignitaries, schoolchildren and more than 400 islanders crowded Tuesday morning around the base of a massive wind turbine to officially dedicate the Fox Islands Wind Project.
But it was hard for those attending to take their eyes off the three turbines, which stretched almost 400 feet above the surrounding spruce trees to punctuate the bright blue sky.
“I think they’re wonderful,” said Andrea Smith of Vinalhaven. “I think they’re graceful and beautiful, like some prehistoric creature come to life.”
It is the largest community-based wind project on the East Coast, and the 4.5 megawatts of electricity generated by the churning blades will benefit the residents of Vinalhaven and North Haven islands.
While it seemed clear that the vast majority of residents at the ceremony were thrilled with “their” turbines, a small but vocal group of islanders who live close to the turbines has expressed deep concerns about the noise, flickering red lights and potential negative effects on health and well-being.
“Last night, it was just throbbing,” said David Wylie, who lives about a half mile from the turbines. “Whump, whump, whump. It makes your ears ring. It’s like having a cement mixer in your dooryard, combined with a helicopter on your roof.”
His wife, Sally Wylie, expressed cautious optimism that the problems can be solved.
“We truly believe that they’re going to do everything in their power to make it work,” she said. “It’s a really caring community.”
Despite their concerns, the Wylies and others who say they are negatively affected by the turbines still came to the dedication ceremony. There they heard words of hope and pride from Gov. John Baldacci, Democratic U.S. 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree, who lives on North Haven, state Speaker of the House Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, Cianbro CEO Peter Vigue and youngsters from the two islands, among many others.
“You folks are bold, and I congratulate you,” Baldacci said. “I think it is vitally important for our country to look at the example you set. People on this island are leading the way.”
Vigue said the operative turbines have silenced naysayers who doubted that the project could happen at all, and certainly not in such a short time span.
The $14.5 million project came to fruition quickly after islanders voted overwhelmingly in July 2008 to go forward with the project. Ground was broken in June this year and workers from Cianbro labored throughout the summer to get the turbines up.
“What you see before you is a testimony to what we can do when we work together,” Vigue said.
He — and just about everyone else who spoke — thanked George Baker, the CEO of Fox Islands Wind and the creative force behind the turbine project.
“Talk about terrific leadership,” Vigue said.
The official speeches were upstaged by a song and dance performed by the children of the North Haven Community School, who wore shirts with a blade on the front and a light bulb on the back.
“I’m a great big turbine, tall and strong,” they sang. “Here are my blades. They’re really long. When a gust of wind comes, watch me spin. I create energy from the wind.”
One of the dancers was third-grader Michael Stone.
“They’re really cool,” he said of the turbines.
That’s what Ethan Hall, who has roots that stretch back for generations into Vinalhaven’s rocky ground, thought, too. At least, he thought that before the turbines turned on and the wind picked up, right next to the property where he is building an environmentally sensitive straw bale house. And then he began to experience the turbine’s noise and power up close.
Hall was among about 30 people, mostly close neighbors, who attended a community meeting Sunday to talk to Baker and others about unexpected problems with the turbines.
“I feel the pulse from the turbines,” he said. “I’ve never before encountered anything in my life like this.”
He and others said at the meeting that they felt misled by project leaders, saying the possibility of disruptive noise had been downplayed.
“If I had been told, I would have been less likely to open-heartedly accept them as the sustainable future of Vinalhaven,” Hall said.
Baker said he wanted to hear the “subjective observations” from project neighbors, many of whom asked for the blades to be slowed and for more to be done to reduce the noise.
“I think we’re going to need to come to some set of compromises between the people in this room and the rest of the ratepayers on the islands,” Baker said.
Many of those ratepayers said at the dedication ceremony that they were happy to be at the cutting edge of technology and progress as they face into the wind.
“The 20th century was the age of fossil fuels. We turned our backs on wind,” said Philip Conkling, director of the Island Institute. “Today, we are at the beginning of the age of energy independence. And truly, the whole world is watching.”