A mighty wind

By MIKE MILIARD  |  August 24, 2009

He has reason to say that. In Stetson's case, First Wind's tax payments are distributed among the communities of Washington and Penobscot Counties. But Mars Hill, where the turbines are within the town limits, "gets about half a million dollars a year from us in tax revenues," says John Lamontagne, First Wind's director of corporate communications. "Different towns choose to use those funds in different ways, but Mars Hill has decided to give everyone basically a 20- to 25-percent property-tax cut."

In addition to taxes paid on each farm (and the handful of full-time jobs created for their employees), First Wind estimates $50 million from the construction of the Stetson project went directly into the Maine economy, spent at 130 businesses — brush clearing, steel supply, fiber optics — from Caribou to Kittery.

Most interesting, the wind industry is starting to transform some of Maine's oldest businesses into 21st-century versions of their former selves. Reed and Reed, the Woolwich-based contractors who erected the towers, have been bridge builders since 1928. "They'd never touched a wind turbine until Mars Hill," says Kearns. "We sort of trained them— and they sort of trained us about doing business in Maine, which is significant."

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WINDFALL: In addition to tax breaks and job production, First Wind is estimated to have contributed $50 million to the Maine economy.

On my visit, I meet a man from the western Maine mill town of Rumford, who's taking a tour of Stetson in an effort to learn more about the wind industry. For years, he'd worked in the paper industry — another once-robust sector, critical to Maine's economy, that's seen better days. "The only thing I can see that's really moving is wind," he says. "So that's the direction I'm headed."

Plenty of due diligence takes place before ground is broken for a wind farm. "Roughly three to four years, soup to nuts," says Kearns. "We identify areas we think are suitable, we talk to landowners, walking the land with their permission, and, assuming we have a meeting of the minds, we'll put up a meteorological tower. Then we need at least a year of data, figuring out if there's a fit there."

Next, there are environmental issues, says Kearns. "Bird and bat studies. Vernal pool studies — you've got to wait for spring to find those little egg masses. Certain birds only fly by at certain times — like hawk migration occurs in the fall. We use radar equipment to determine which bats are coming by, and at what frequency. They're pretty robust studies."

Cianchette, for his part, is a registered Maine Master Guide and has been hunting these woods his whole life. He flatly rebuts any argument that the towers are adversely affecting the area's fauna. "Moose, deer, bear, bobcat, coyote, rabbits . . . [Since the towers were erected], I've seen more animals on this mountain than any other."

Sure, there were several local residents opposed to dotting the lush canopy of trees with three dozen 155-ton towers. But each of those turbines, remember, also displaces 2500 tons of CO2 from the air each year. That's not insignificant.

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