A mighty wind

By MIKE MILIARD  |  August 24, 2009

Initially, the plan was for me to sign a release form, strap a hardhat on, get harnessed in, and make the 15-minute ladder climb to the top. I'll admit: when thunderheads roll through and the threat of lightning makes that idea untenable, I am as much relieved as I am disappointed.

Sitting in Stetson's sparely furnished control building — a few PCs that closely monitor and control each tower, a fire-retardant library with scrupulous logs of every tower inspection — Cianchette explains what makes eastern Washington County a great place for a wind farm.

For one thing, it's sparsely populated. The closest year-round home to Stetson is a mile and a half away, and much of the traffic in Township 8, Range 3, comes in the way of snowmobiles.

And Stetson Ridge, while hardly Mount Washington, is tall(ish) — as Maine's eastern region goes. It's highest at its mid-point, where tower numbers 19 and 20 stand basking in the breeze, says Cianchette, who notes that the output of the turbines pretty much follows the topography of the mountain: "The higher the turbine, the better the generation."

Each turbine costs a bit more than $2.5 million and is designed for a 20-year life-span. Once their foundations are poured, even despite their gargantuan size, each takes barely two days to put up. In a best-case scenario, says Cianchette, it could take just seven months between breaking ground on a wind farm and it producing power.

"We're producing, but not close to what we could," says Cianchette ruefully of the day's moderate winds. "Some days we're at 50 percent capacity, some days we're at zero. I don't like those days. A calm, sunny day? I don't like that at all." In this job, he says, "You kind of change the way you look at the weather. The wild weather we get through here — I love it. My wife says she hates the wind, but I tell her, 'Honey, it sounds like money.' "

Washington delivers
Thanks to taxes, capital expenditure, and job creation, that money travels both ways. And for that reason — despite some complaints about noise from Mars Hill Wind (a lawsuit about which was filed last week) and small but vocal opposition to the proposed Rollins Wind project — in Washington County, at least, it seems most locals are happy Stetson Wind is there.

"People here, from what I can tell, have been very welcoming to the windmills," says Francis Grey, town manager for Danforth, the town (population 629) that abuts Township 8, Range 3. "We're so small that any additional employment opportunities in our area is significant."

Several Washington County businesses, many of which would have shuttered during the colder months, were filled up this past winter as the area swarmed with construction workers. In addition to Danforth "enjoying a benefit in our tax assessment because of temporary storage of [turbine] components during the construction phase," Grey says First Wind also banked some good-will capital by donating "some very expensive equipment to the fire department." (Kearns notes that one of the cranes used to erect the towers also helped right one farmer's old and sagging barn.)

That's all good, but "what we'd really like to see the most is some of these wind mills permanently erected in our boundaries," says Grey frankly. "Then we could see some tax revenue. That's what we'd like the best."

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