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 , Associated Press

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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.

First Wind’s 38-turbine Stetson project, now New England’s largest, can turn out enough electricity to power about 23,500 homes. Newton, Mass.-based First Wind also owns Maine’s first major wind farm, Mars Hill farther north, and plans a 17-turbine expansion at Stetson.

With two utility-grade projects online and a third due for completion next year, Maine is by far the largest wind-power producer in New England. Together, Stetson, Mars Hill and TransCanada’s incomplete Kibby Mountain project in western Maine will churn out more than 230 megawatts, enough to supply the average needs of about 93,000 homes.

That nudges the state closer to a goal set by Gov. John Baldacci’s Task Force on Wind Power Development, which also sees boundless potential with projects offshore, in waters once crisscrossed by Maine’s sailing ships.

While aggressively pursuing energy independence that would be achieved largely by wind, Maine lags behind about half of the states — notably New York and Pennsylvania in the Northeast — in existing capacity. Texas, California and Iowa are among the national leaders.

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Maine’s shipbuilding and seafaring renown have long been cultivated by Maine Maritime Academy. But the Castine school years ago diversified its programs to also prepare students who might seek work in land-based power plants.

“We saw many of our marine engineers coming ashore and transferring their skills to land-based power plants and industrial power projects,” said Janice Zenter, school spokeswoman. She sees that as a natural jump for those trained as mariners.

“When people are seafarers they tend to be resourceful and know how to do it all,” Zenter said.

Cianchette, who worked at sea on oil tankers for nearly five years, also sees a tie-in between working on ships and on the windmills.

“You’ve got to really want to be here,” said Cianchette. “It’s very similar to being at sea. It’s isolated. There’s limited interaction with other people.”

The closest any house comes to a turbine is a mile and a half, said Cianchette. The only close neighbors are the deer, moose, bears, coyotes and other denizens of the heavily forested area.

“It’s the nature of the beast,” said Cianchette. “It needs to be in an area where there aren’t a lot of people.”

After working at sea for nearly five years, Cianchette, 47, had stints at a naval shipyard, in a wood-burning power plant, a construction company and in a machine shop, but says his move to the wind farm was the one he was waiting for. It’s a job, he said, in which he becomes part of the solution to a big challenge: achieving energy independence.

Cianchette gazed at the landscape far below while standing in the open air, atop the generator housing of Windmill No. 2. Inspectors must climb out a hatch to the top of the housing and, with safety harnesses attached, check weather-monitoring instruments that help keep the windmills running smoothly.

They must also climb inside the hub, or nose, at the center of the blades to check equipment. That’s about 300 feet above the ground.

The work requires physical toughness for the four men who inspect the turbines. Their goal is to check out each of the 38 windmills once a month, so that means one or two climbs up 267 rungs of the interior ladders, every working day, for each windmill.

And it doesn’t end when Maine’s harsh winters arrive and the winds are their fiercest. Inside the tower, air is heated above freezing to protect the power equipment. But when the temperature drops to around 0 degrees and the generator housings ice up, inspectors stay inside.

“I came from a 15-by-10 cubicle with one window,” Cianchette said as he stood on the top of the housing and gazed over the panorama below. “This is my office. What more can you say about it? This is absolutely fantastic.”

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