A Texas company is courting Aroostook County landowners as it moves forward with plans for several large wind farms that could transform the landscape in some areas of northern Maine.
Horizon Wind Energy’s long-term plan envisions up to 400 turbines spinning in the farm fields and forests of Aroostook County. Company officials say they are focusing on a forested area west of Bridgewater. But Horizon officials are keeping mum on additional locations, adding only that most are agricultural or forested sites in eastern Aroostook County.
Planning is still in the preliminary stages, but company officials say the wind-power facilities would likely be built in several phases if the projects survive the lengthy and costly regulatory process. Horizon, which operates wind farms in five other states, has not submitted any applications with Maine regulators. But if Horizon officials’ vision comes to fruition, the suite of wind farms could produce up to 800 megawatts of pollution-free energy when operating at full capacity.
The state of Maine uses 2,200 megawatts of power at peak demand in summer months. That could also put Maine — already New England’s leader in wind power — into the upper echelon nationally of states tapping the wind for electricity.
“Horizon’s approach to working in Maine is you need to find a combination of community interest, wind resources, transmission lines and space to build,” said Justin Dawe, project manager for the company. “Aroostook County is attractive because of the combination of decent wind, low population density and then its access to regional customers.”
Horizon, which is also operating locally under the subsidiary name Aroostook Wind Energy, has been quietly working on the project since 2005. The company has erected test towers in several locations in The County and consulted with the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission, Department of Environment Protection and federal regulators.
More recently, the company began contacting landowners along the potential corridors for the wind turbines and transmission lines. Dawe declined to release specific figures but said the company has acquired leases and options on “significant acreage.”
Participating landowners would receive annual payments depending on total acreage and whether equipment was located on their property. Dawe again declined to provide dollar figures but said some landowners could realize significant income from leases.
Dawe said the company hopes to begin construction on the first wind project by 2010. “Horizon’s experience is that agricultural communities are a natural place for wind projects,” Dawe said. “People look at the land as working landscapes.”
Aroostook County is home to Maine’s only sizable wind farm — the 28-turbine facility in Mars Hill operated by UPC Wind. Elsewhere in Maine, state regulators have also granted permits for a 38-turbine wind farm currently under construction on Stetson Mountain in northern Washington County and a 44-turbine farm on Kibby Mountain in western Maine.
Horizon’s wind projects face multiple hurdles, most notably winning public support for miles and miles of windmills towering hundreds of feet in the air. The company has held several meetings with landowners, including one recently in Fort Kent. Donald Guimond, manager of the town on Maine’s northern border with Canada, said the local residents with whom he has spoken are split over the project.
“I’ve had some inquiries from property owners,” Guimond said. “There are folks out there that are generally supportive of it, and there are some that have concerns.”
Fort Kent resident Brian Romann counts himself among the latter. Romann, who is among the landowners approached by Horizon, said he fears the enormous turbines will scar the landscape and hurt tourism and economic development. People come to the Fort Kent area for its beauty and its abundant outdoor recreation opportunities, not to see windmills, he said.
“We won’t be able to turn any which way and not see a turbine,” Romann said.
Dawe said Horizon has received positive feedback from many landowners but that the company strives to be upfront and open about the project. “A wind power project is a large undertaking,” he said. “Turbines are neither silent nor invisible.”
A group of neighbors living near the Mars Hill wind farm have filed noise complaints with state environmental officials, alleging that the spinning turbines are disturbing their sleep, disrupting wildlife and affecting the enjoyment of their homes. Opponents of the Stetson Mountain project also expressed strong concerns about potential turbine noise and how the 400-foot-tall structures would affect wildlife and tourism. But one of the biggest obstacles Horizon may face is power transmission.
Dawe said the company wants to connect to the New England power grid — where the demand for power from renewable sources is greatest — rather than to the electricity infrastructure in nearby New Brunswick. Horizon is among several companies urging ISO New England to build new transmission lines connecting northern Maine to the New England power grid.
Horizon, which is based in Houston, has developed more than 2,000 megawatts of wind power and is developing plans for an additional 10,500-plus megawatts in 15 states. The company is owned by Energias de Portugal, the largest utility in Portugal.