15 years ago, a small town in Aroostook started with wind power – and encountered turbulence along the way

On a late summer afternoon in Mars Hill, high winds swept across the fields of Aroostook County as Ray Mersereau gazed toward a mountain peak 3 miles east of his home and counted what He saw.

“…Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen. . . I can see about nineteen of the wind turbines from my front yard,” Mersereau said.

A series of towers, gleaming white in the sun, rose from the roughly 1,750-foot mountain that gave the town of Mars Hill its name. If you look closely, you can make out the huge turbine blades – each measuring the length of three school buses – spinning in the even higher winds atop the county’s highest point.

It’s been 15 years since a total of 28 turbines began spinning on Mars Hill Mountain, making this rural farming town the first community in all of New England to host a large-scale wind farm. Mersereau is now retired. But as city manager of Mars Hill, he played a major role in bringing commercial wind power to this corner of northeastern Maine along the Canadian border. Mersereau said it was a major undertaking – and a controversial one too – but an important achievement, he added.

“It was a lot of detail because it was the first one. We were cutting all the new fabric,” he said. had to take it as it went.”

As the state’s wind power pioneer, Mars Hill exposed some of the regulatory and legal pitfalls that can arise when 400-foot-tall wind turbines are built near homes.

“Looking back, Mars Hill was a debacle in terms of neighborly relations,” said Chris O’Neil, an outspoken critic of Maine’s wind industry as a lobbyist and leader of Friends of Maine’s Mountains.

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Kevin Miller

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Maine Public

Former Mars Hill City Manager Ray Mercereau, now retired, watches the wind turbines visible from his front yard. Mercereau was instrumental in installing New England’s first commercial wind farm in his town in Aroostook County.

Neighbors were assured that the Mars Hill turbines would be nearly silent, so they were surprised by the noise, low-level vibrations, and periodic shadow effects. More than a dozen Mars Hill owners have sued the developer, First Wind, claiming the turbines are damaging their health and the value of their properties. The company eventually paid an undisclosed sum, and the owners agreed to remain silent. But O’Neil said the controversy, as well as regulatory and legal battles surrounding the Mars Hill project, had an impact on the future.

“One of the takeaways from Mars Hill is that the industry has become a bit more circumspect when it comes to staking future projects,” O’Neil said.

The hissing noise generated by the 100-foot-long turbine blades slicing through the air is both rhythmic and mechanical. It’s been compared to sneakers falling through a clothes dryer or high-altitude airplanes that never go anywhere. But some people say the constant noise is disorienting or even harmful.

After Mars Hill, state regulators set stricter noise limits for wind turbines located near homes. And voters in dozens of cities have banned wind farms or imposed removal requirements based on the experiences of people living near wind turbines in Mars Hill, Freedom and Vinalhaven.

“There has been a recognition of the visual impact, the audible impact and the desire to ensure that these are mitigated and reduced as much as possible while creating an opportunity for the construction of projects,” said said Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association. .

Wind power now ranks as Maine’s third-largest electricity producer after natural gas and hydroelectricity, and is a major part of the state’s ambitious goals to combat climate change. A decade and a half after Mars Hill’s 28 wind turbines began spinning, there are now nearly 400 commercial-scale wind turbines in the state generating enough emission-free electricity to power about 350,000 homes, according to the estimates provided by Payne. While wind power development has slowed significantly in recent years, hundreds more wind turbines are planned for the state.

Payne said there have been many adjustments to Maine’s laws and regulations in response to concerns raised as the industry has evolved and grown.

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Kevin Miller

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Maine Public

Turbines at the Mars Hill Wind Facility in Aroostook County, seen from outside a closed access road. The facility is owned and operated by Brookfield Renewable.

“Any time you have a precursor in the market, you’re going to look back and say, boy, there are things we could have or should have done differently,” Payne said. “I’m sure that’s the case with Mars Hill as with any other industry. But what’s important since then is that we haven’t done exactly the same thing.

Some Mars Hill residents say they appreciate the $500,000 the town receives each year from the various owners of the wind farm, and they point out that the turbines haven’t harmed either the Big Rock ski area or the golf course that sits on it. the mountain. But others say the windmills have spoiled the landscape and diminished the enjoyment of their homes.

Shortly after the windmills were built, Rodney Mahan and his wife put up a sign outside their house saying, “Sound your horn if you hate windmills. Fifteen years later, he didn’t appreciate them much, although he said he and other critics of wind turbines had gotten them used to being part of the landscape.

“Well, I lost my hair a few years ago and I got used to it. I accepted the fact, didn’t I?” Mahan said. “So, you know, we’re just used to it. I don’t know how else to put it.”

However, like any high-tech component, wind turbines do not last forever. The industry estimates that most turbines last 20 to 25 years, and newer versions generate more power than those spinning on Mars Hill. This means that all 28 wind turbines are within five years of when some other facilities will either be retired or “re-powered” with improved technology.

Brookfield Renewable USA, a subsidiary of the international energy giant, bought a 51% stake in the Mars Hill facility in 2017 and then the remaining stake in 2020. Brookfield spokesman David Heidrich said said in a written statement that Mars Hill “has undoubtedly helped lead the way and set a precedent in the permitting and development spaces for wind power in Maine. And that said, the company remains committed to the long-term prospects of the project.

“There may be a time in the future to discuss repowering Mars Hill, but, for now, it continues to operate as planned thanks to our ongoing routine turbine maintenance,” Heidrich said. “In fact, this is true for all of our Maine-based wind assets that were acquired as part of our purchase of TerraForm. These facilities are performing well and we are actively investing in them to continue their long-term operation.”

Back outside his home just beyond downtown, former city manager Ray Mersereau says he’s proud of Mars Hill’s groundbreaking role in the state’s wind industry. And he thinks most of the townspeople have come to terms with the new mountain landscape.

“I like the look of the mountain,” he said. “You know, I loved him before and I still love him.”

Although the pace of wind energy development in Maine has slowed, it has not stopped. In fact, Aroostook County, which is also home to the 48-turbine Oakfield Wind Farm, remains a popular draw for potential developers due to its open space, low population density, and historical ties to forestry and farming. A Texas company, for example, hopes to build what would be Maine’s largest wind farm just 10 miles from Mars Hill in commercial forest land around Number Nine Mountain.

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