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Maine’s windkeepers: From ship masts to windmills

Today, winds help turn on the lights, run TVs and power washers, dryers and ovens in thousands of homes all over New England.

By Glenn AdamsAssociated Press / August 12, 2009

Mike Cianchette, operations manager of the Stetson Mountain wind project, scans the mountain ridge while making inspections on top of a 300-foot tall windmill, in Range 8, Township 3, Maine.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP

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TOWNSHIP 8, RANGE 3, Maine

Silent surroundings almost tease the ears as clouds skitter across the top of this eastern corner of Maine. The wind, barely audible, swishes through beech and fir trees crowding the hills of an area so remote it’s part of the state’s Unorganized Territory.

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Along the rounded ridge of Stetson Mountain, wisps of wind gain a whoosh-whoosh cadence as they push into motion mammoth blades at the tops of towers reaching hundreds of feet into the air.

Those same winds help turn on the lights, run TVs and power washers, dryers and ovens in thousands of homes all over New England. They also help to heat the water for Andy Doak’s shower before he heads out for work just after dawn on a cool summer morning.

On the job, Doak ambles up the ladder inside a windmill, inspecting electrical components, structural bolts and other fittings on one of First Wind’s 38 towers. For an outsider, it’s a daunting and arduous climb, one that brings to mind a sailor’s climb up a ship’s mast long ago, or a lighthouse keeper’s rise to his isolated perch.

It’s no coincidence that Doak, 27, trained as a marine engineer, finds himself tending mountaintop windmills, though he says he never dreamed of this as a student at Maine Maritime Academy.

The winds that once powered fleets of Maine’s storied sailing ships now churn out the juice for a green energy industry the state is breathlessly pursuing. Technology that moves ships through the seas is much the same as what’s applied on the turbines.

And then, there’s the scenery.

“This is as good as it gets, right here. This is the best view you’re going to get around these areas,” said Doak, locked in a safety harness as he stands atop a generator housing 300 feet in the air, with mountains, sprawling forest and a line of windmills playing out below his feet. “It’s pretty humbling.”

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Windmills are a lot more than big pinwheels poked into the Earth.

In construction, they’re lifted into place section-by-section by cranes so big they must be hauled to the site in several pieces and reassembled. Their operation requires daily maintenance by people like Doak and fellow Maine Maritime graduate Mike Cianchette, operations manager at the Stetson complex.

Once assembled, the 122-foot blades drive a horizontal shaft about 2 feet in diameter. The shaft’s wind-driven speed, about 18 rpm under average conditions, is greatly amplified to 1,200 to 1,400 rpm on the main generator, which makes electricity that’s sent down the tower to a transformer, Cianchette explained. From there, it’s sent by overhead lines to the nearest utility, Bangor Hydro-Electric Co.

Stetson’s wind-generated power might wind up running electric razors, cake mixers and toasters anywhere in New England.

The U.S. Department of Energy said in 2008 that, despite rising project costs, the wholesale price of wind power has consistently been at or below the average wholesale price of conventional electricity. An industry group, the American Wind Energy Association, said the cost of wind power generation is now in a range that’s competitive with power from a conventional plant that would be built today.

While wind power is viewed by many as a key to energy independence, neighbors who are within eyeshot of windmills don’t always throw out the welcome mat. Projects in New Hampshire, Idaho and other states drew opposition by those who view windmills as too noisy or a blight on the scenery. And in Maine, a project was turned down in 2007 in part because it would mar the scenery enjoyed by Appalachian Trail hikers.