Mars Hill shows key to success -- Wind in tricky New England

Maine, the vast, bucolic and most north-eastern state in the US, is about to receive power from its first commercial wind plant, the 42 MW Mars Hill project developed by Evergreen Wind Power, a local development offshoot of UPC Wind of Newton, Massachusetts. Expected online before year's end, the project becomes the largest commercial wind plant in the six-state New England region which, while known for its strong winds and receptive energy markets, is also an exceedingly difficult region in which to develop wind projects. Opposition to the appearance of wind turbines in the landscape can be fierce.

Raymond Mersereau, manager of the town of Mars Hill, believes UPC Wind struck the right balance by finding a site that was already developed and is located in a more accepting community. "If you look at Maine, we're way up there. This is a farming and woods industries community and there are not a lot of special interest groups," Mersereau says, noting the heated debate over the Cape Wind offshore proposal in Massachusetts and the opposition to a 60-90 MW proposal in the more sensitive Redington, Maine, area by another developer. "We're a very poor area so the development in Mars Hill looks very attractive. That's a high increase in taxable property."

A wind project's financial benefits are more acutely felt in smaller, more rural New England communities with low income. Typical of such towns is Sheffield, in Vermont, where UPC is developing another project. The company's Peter Gish says income level is not a specific criteria for locating a project, but that wind resources are often best in more remote areas. The Vermont endeavour, compared with Mars Hill in Maine, has been a real slog for the company. Sheffield voted in favour of the project, but not with an overwhelming majority (Windpower Monthly, January 2006) and ongoing concerns have led UPC to reduce the planned 26 turbines to 16 machines, although these are larger than those originally proposed.

Baby boomers

Gish sees an unfortunate dynamic in the rise of wealthy retired people moving up into rural New England from metropolitan areas like Connecticut and New Jersey. They relocate for the rural atmosphere and immediately rail against wind developments that might herald change.

"The economy has been transformed, certainly in southern Maine, not as much in New Hampshire, but definitely in Vermont as a whole. These baby-boomers settle into impressive homes and there's a desire not to see the landscape change. It has to do with a resistance to change and impacts on property values," says Gish. "We're seeing this front and centre in our business. It's interesting to see how the opposition, whether in Vermont or over in New York, in part is being driven by this segment of the population."

Despite the opposition, high energy prices in New England make the effort worthwhile, says Gish. Communities benefit financially, too. The town of Mars Hill will receive $500,000 a year in taxes from the UPC project. With the town's annual budget at $1.7 million, including the schools, the infusion is significant. Maine's property taxes for businesses and individuals are some of the highest in the country. Mersereau says the tax funds accrued from the wind plant will be used to lower the overall tax rate to the community by around 20%, spreading a financial benefit to the entire community.

Mersereau says the community support at Mars Hill, compared with the lack of it in Vermont, also comes from wind farming being an extension of the "living off the land" concept prevalent in Maine, such as through its widespread potato farming and timber industries. "That's the difference I see, in the way we make our living," he says. "People are more tolerant and there isn't the big money interests that oppose the project."

Owners of the property where the 28 GE 1.5 MW turbines are located also receive land lease payments. As many as ten landowners will receive minimum sums of $3000 a year, adjusted for inflation, or up to 2.5% of the revenue from each turbine located on the property, according to Mersereau.

Another key factor to the project's success is its location on an already developed ridgeline. Arguments used elsewhere in New England are that wind plants impinge on pristine environments, ridgelines in particular. The Mars Hill ridge currently has six towers of varying heights for radio and cellular services and an active ski area.

Great site

For all the factors that led to the project's acceptance in Mars Hill, what UPC gains is one of the best wind sites in New England. The ridge is the most prominent feature in Maine's Aroostook County. Like other New England mountains, it is essentially a large rock, a geological formation left over from the glacial pullout during the ice ages. The forested ridge rises 1650 feet (500 metres) above the outlying flat plains below. New England winds -- particularly incessant during the winter months -- travel unabated from Canada or the Atlantic Ocean for 50-100 miles before hitting the four-mile ridge, which faces a perfect perpendicular into the prevailing winds.

"The ridge is made like a long torpedo," says Mersereau. "The capacity factor is better than the company thought. From what I know, it's about as ideal as you get." He says the turbines are being strung "like a picket fence along the top." Gish declines to specify what the wind speeds are, beyond being good.

Nearby resident Paul Cyr, in the town of Presque Isle, concurs that the site is exceptional. As an ultra-light plane hobbyist, he flies around the area often and says the Mars Hill ridge creates its own wind patterns. "Flying near the ridge, you've got to stay a good ways above it or you can get swept out of control by the winds that whip over the top."