A mighty wind

By MIKE MILIARD  |  August 24, 2009

With the Obama administration pledging support for green energy, and this winter's stimulus package helping to unstick sluggish credit markets, the best could be yet to come.

First Wind also has wind farms, either in operation or various stages of development, in Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, California, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, New York, Vermont, and New Brunswick, making Massachusetts a key player in the green-energy revolution. Maine, which ranks 19th in the country for wind resources, is a cornerstone to First Wind's growth strategy. (Its farms currently produce 274 megawatts nationwide, with 203 more under construction, and anywhere from 4000 to 5000 in development behind that.)

"We're very bullish on New England," says First Wind's CEO Paul Gaynor, noting that, in addition to its Newton headquarters, the firm has development offices in Portland, Maine, and Montpelier, Vermont.

"Maine has abundant wind resources," he explains. "And it's a big state, so there's a fair amount of room to put up wind farms. Maine has also done a very admirable job of making wind-power development a key part of their policy. The rules of the road are very clear in Maine, in terms of permitting and so forth. That clarity, quite frankly, is appealing compared to other states where there's not a whole lot of clarity."

First Wind also operates Maine's first wind farm, the 42-megawatt Mars Hill Wind, which opened in 2006. And, in addition to the Stetson expansion, which will add another 25.5 megawatts to the New England grid (it's been approved; the parts have been delivered; and now it's just a matter of wrangling a bit more capital), it also has two other Maine projects in the pipeline. Rollins Wind would be a 60-megawatt farm, in the eastern part of the state, in the Penobscot County town of Lincoln (a permit was granted by the Maine DEP in April) and Oakfield Wind (permit-application pending) would produce 50 megawatts, in eastern Aroostook County.

"There's no question," says Matt Kearns, First Wind's president of development in New England, "that if wind is going to take hold, and if New England is going to have a prayer of meeting its requirements for renewable energy" — under the mandates of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and various states' renewable portfolio standards— "Maine is going to have to have a key role."

As that role continues to evolve, Gaynor can't quite believe how fast things are moving since he joined First Wind — which was founded in 1995 as UPC Wind Partners— back in 2004. "It was a much different business back then, a much smaller industry. I wouldn't have imagined how quickly it's grown over the last five years."

The sound of money
Driving along sparsely trafficked Route 169, coming over a rise in the road, I first see those sleek white towers looming over the tree line, lapping lazily at the air. To these eyes, at least, they look beautiful.

There are photos and videos of wind turbines all over the Web. But until you've seen a wind farm in person, it's hard to describe the breathtaking size.

Each tower is topped by an engine house of sorts called a nacelle, which in turn is attached to those massive adjustable turbines, each able to yaw in the direction of the wind. From the ground, the nacelle seems like it should be the size of a coffee table— they're actually as big as a small plane.

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