Saturday, July 25, 2009

Wind Power Turbines Towering Maine Mountainsides

I'm convinced that Maine has more detours and roadblocks than any state in the union. If Eisenhower hadn't forced a highway system on the state, I think people here would have been content with snow mobiles and dog sleds forever. Isolated from the union, Maine folk display a fierce independence, a friendliness not compromised by that independence, and a do-it-yourself work ethic that wreaks of the American Revolutionary spirit.

Sitting at the bar at the White Wolf Inn in Stratton, Maine, I've entered a universe all its own. Moose Crossing signs decorate the wall behind the bar. A sticker of solidarity exclaims: Red Necks for Red Wolves. T-shirts with a wolf's face emerging from the northern lights hang for sale. The bartender and innkeeper comes around the corner proceeded by her nasal /r/ less accent.

"Are you Kelley?"

I have no idea how she could have guessed that- perhaps because I'm the only non-local in the bar? Officially, Stratton is home to a staggering 687 people, but as I soon learn, the local population has seen a recent boom.

The men to my right say hesitant hellos and we exchange where-you-from, what-you-doing-here pleasantries. I notice the man in the middle is wearing an IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) sweatshirt. My dad being an IBEW union man, I feel a kinship to the gruff blue collared guys drinking away the day in a local bar. Hailey, the guy in the IBEW shirt, wears a nice full beard and a ball cap. When he takes his hat off, he is completely bald save for a semicircle of gray hair above his ears and around the back of his head.

Hailey is a no non-sense kind of guy. Prior to being an electrician, he was an overland hauler, a trucker. He tells me a little about that lifestyle, how he got to see the whole United States while getting paid, how he was at one time an independent contractor, but got forced out of business by big corporate truck companies.

When I ask about the union, he sort of shrugs it off: "We're just a couple of old rednecks doing some construction work."

Nonetheless, they tell me a little about their construction project, how they are doing the electrical wiring to the nearby Kibby Wind Power Plant. Hailey speaks with pride as he tells me that the Kibby Wind Power Plant will be the largest in New England when completed in late 2009. "It's an eyesore on the mountains, though," he adds.

The company doing the electrical work and hauling, the company these gentleman work for is Reed & Reed, a local contracting business in its 3rd generation. Originally making its fortune building bridges during the explosion of the automobile era, the company is taking a new direction with clean energy.

TransCanada actually owns the Wind Power Plant, which will contain 44 wind turbines generating enough electricity for 50,000 homes or the equivalent of Franklin, Oxford, and Somerset counties. TransCanada is a huge player in North America's energy infrastructure, owning a natural gas pipeline system of over 36,500 miles. More recently, the company has taken an interest in "clean" energy like the Kibby Wind Power Project.

When I drive 12 miles north of Stratton to the wind turbines, I go up a huge muddy mountainside, the little red engine that could sliding around, trying to avoid the semis lumbering past carrying lumber and wind turbine parts.

I take some side roads just to have a look around, huge tundra pine trees towering over everything. It's hard to imagine that anything manmade could survive in this wilderness, but as I go up and up and up, finally I see some of the first wind turbines- a total of four came into view above me. Each turbine stands at around 262 feet. The scale of these giant mountains covered with giant trees and now giant wind turbines is impossible to capture in photos...but this video from Reed & Reed captures the process of making a wind turbine really well.

On my way down, I see semis coming up the mountain with parts for the turbines, and I find myself amazed by the "Oversized Load" signs. One truck, loaded with the actually tower of the wind turbine seems to extend forever. It's around 250 feet long, taking up two truck beds and it's being hauled up the side of a mountain--and they are doing 44 of those!

One of the things that impresses me about the operation is the seemingly infinite small components that go into creating this power plant. From the people actually putting the turbines together to the people manufacturing the parts to the people hauling the parts to the people directing traffic on the street to the people wiring power lines to the people serving food and drink to Stratton's new arrivals, the project provides dozens of jobs. All said, it has created around 250 jobs during peak construction. After construction, it will provide 10-12 permanent jobs maintaining the wind turbines, which doesn't seem like much, but comparatively, these are good jobs paying $18-$22/hour rather than typical $9-$10/hr service jobs. Of course, training is necessary, so Northern Maine Community College has begun offering an Associate's Degree for Wind Turbine Technicians.

For those who wonder what the green economy looks like on the ground, we begin to see a bit of a picture in a rural community in Northern Maine. There are some glitches to be worked out, including the cost and difficulty of transport for wind turbines, but mounting energy demand in a coal/fossil fuel depleted nation will make these towering giants all the more necessary.

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Whenever people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong.
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