A mighty wind

By MIKE MILIARD  |  August 24, 2009

Earlier this year, at a ribbon cutting for Stetson Wind farm in Washington County, Maine — at the thickly forested, sparsely populated eastern edge of the state — Baldacci threw down a green gauntlet: "They talk about it in Washington, DC. But they're delivering on it in Washington County."

This past July, I headed north to Township 8, Range 3, outside the town of Danforth, just miles from the New Brunswick border, to visit Stetson Wind and see what it does up close.

Run by Newton, Massachusetts–based First Wind, Stetson is the largest operational wind farm in New England — at least, that is, until TransCanada's 132 megawatt Kibby Mountain project in the northwest corner of Maine goes online, potentially later this year. One can expect to see more like them sprout up across the region as New England realizes its green-energy potential.

Down on the farm
"Put down 'cooing of a dove.' "

Mike Cianchette, Stetson's burly, bald, lushly mustached operations manager, is offering a helpful descriptor for the soft, susurrous sound that's drifting down from the 80-meter-tall turbine towering above us.

In fact, for such a giant structure — the tips of whose 77-meter-diameter blades are cleaving the air at about 100 miles per hour — that gentle metaphor isn't too far off the mark. Granted, the wind is only blowing seven or eight miles per hour; with heavier gusts the turbines would be louder.

Comprised of 38 1.5-megawatt turbines and situated along a five-mile former logging road atop 1100-foot-tall Stetson Ridge, it has just five full-time employees, and cost about $140 million to build. Its rated output (a measure of wattage produced per hour if every turbine was running at maximum capacity) is 57 megawatts, enough to power 23,500 homes — roughly five percent of the state's households.

The turbines can withstand wind speeds up to 58 mph (at which time they'd automatically shut down). But this gentle breeze is enough to move the blades at a fairly impressive clip. In turn, the tower is generating 112 kilowatts of electricity. (The faster and longer the turbine is spun by the wind, the more power it generates. It's basically that simple.)

That energy then travels downstate over 38 miles of newly installed transmission lines to the Keene Road substation in Chester, where Bangor Hydro-Electric feeds it into the grid.

Pure Maine electrons, flowing fresh as a mountain stream.

Wind energy isn't perfect. First and most obviously, the wind doesn't always blow.

"We cannot maintain 100 percent availability, 100 percent of the time," concedes Cianchette. "We have yet to control Mother Nature, and until such time as that happens, we're at the whim of what the weather's gonna do for us."

Then there are questions about reliable transmission into the grid. Some opponents question wind farms' impact on wildlife. There are aesthetic concerns, and complaints about noise. Some have even fretted about a nebulous, newly coined affliction called "wind-turbine syndrome."

Most critical, on the development front, wind is a capital-intensive industry that's trying to grow at a time when capital is in short supply.

WIND MINERS: Workers sit atop one of Stetson Wind’s 38 turbines, 80 meters high, in eastern Maine.

But the wind farms keep going up. And Stetson, which has been online for just seven months and is already slated to expand with another 17 turbines later this year, is an impressive example of the kind of projects that could proliferate around New England. Relatively quickly, too — bringing with them jobs and diffuse other economic benefits to parts of the region that badly need it.

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