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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.

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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.

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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.”