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LINCOLN, Maine — State Rep. Stacey Fitts came to the Rollins Mountain industrial wind site on Wednesday partly because with the First Wind project, Maine now has about 325 megawatts of electricity generated by wind power.
Fitts remembers that less than a decade ago, Maine had none, and believes that thanks to projects such as Rollins, the state has planted the seeds of a wind power and alternative energy industry that will grow to employ many more Mainers.
“This is not an easy thing to do. Developing wind power is hard,” said Fitts, a Pittsfield Republican and member of the state wind power task force. “They [First Wind officials] know how to do it. They do it right, and the state of Maine is better for it.”
Rainer Egle doesn’t see it that way. The native of Switzerland stood among anti-wind protesters on Route 6 outside the ceremonies. He said that he had just put his campsite on Upper Pond in Lincoln up for sale because he didn’t want to live near the wind farm’s 40 1½-megawatt turbines on Rollins ridgelines in Burlington, Lee, Lincoln and Winn.
“The worst thing is when we see all those blinking [turbine] lights at night. We came here for nature, not for industry,” Egle said. “We are tourists. We brought in money, lots of money, to the state of Maine, and that will be lost from Maine. Now we are looking to move to Canada, or maybe Alaska.”
Wind power proponents saw Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting as a chance to strut all of the benefits of wind-to-energy production, with a twist: Rollins Mountain was the state’s first site contracted to deliver its 60-megawatt capacity to customers of Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. and Central Maine Power Co.
For opponents, it was an opportunity to reiterate arguments long held against such projects, and to gird themselves for the fight against future First Wind efforts, such as First Wind subsidiary Champlain Wind’s proposed $136 million industrial wind site on 700 acres of eastern Maine’s Bowers Mountain.
With turbine blades spinning briskly in the background, close to 100 people attended the ribbon-cutting, with another 50 protesters outside.
Ratepayers won’t see any immediate change in their electrical bills because of Rollins, said Fitts and Kurt Adams, First Wind’s executive vice president and the former chairman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
However, PUC-approved estimates say the project will save ratepayers $20 million to $40 million in rate savings alone over the next 20 years, they said. The fluctuation, they said, depends on natural gas prices, as most of Maine’s electricity generators run off natural gas.
“Wind energy has always been viewed as expensive, but today, wind can compete directly with fossil fuel [energy providers],” said Paul Gaynor, First Wind’s CEO. He promised that ratepayers “aren’t paying a penny more [for wind-generated electricity] than they would for energy produced from any other source in the region.”
Lincoln officials thanked First Wind for infusing the Lincoln Lakes region’s economy with $30 million directly spent on Maine businesses during the project’s construction, which began in September; for $267,000 in tax payments paid annually to their town out of $785,000 paid to the four towns; and for the 240 workers who stayed on site during the project’s construction, which largely ended last month.
The fully operational Rollins joins three other First Wind sites in Maine. They are the 42-megawatt Mars Hill project and the Stetson I and II sites, which generate a total of 83 megawatts.
Protester Marilyn Roper of Houlton rejected the idea that the turbines and electricity generated were environmentally friendly or beneficial to American industry. The turbines, she said, are mostly made in China, with the bulk of the project’s money spent on foreign-made equipment, and the energy they produce “doesn’t help the environment or reduce our carbon footprint.”
She said that tens of thousands of acres of tree-bearing land will be cleared for wind sites, eliminating millions of carbon-absorbing trees, and that concrete makers produce a ton of carbon dioxide for every ton of concrete they create and deploy.
Wind energy producers, she said, must be backed by traditional, carbon-emitting energy providers to guarantee electrical reliability, further cutting into wind producers’ enviro-friendly claims. Wind producers generate only a fraction of their capacity — usually no more than 30 percent, according to industry estimates.
Stetson II, Roper said, produces as little as 17 percent of its capacity. First Wind officials never have discussed the exact amount of electricity their sites produce, only their range of production, because of what they characterize as industrial confidentiality issues.