15 years ago, a small Aroostook town went first on wind power – and hit turbulence along the way
On a late-summer afternoon in Mars Hill, strong winds swept across the fields of Aroostook County as Ray Mersereau gazed toward a mountaintop 3 miles to the east of his house and counted off what he saw.
“…Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen . . . I can see roughly nineteen of the 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 massive turbine blades – each measuring the length of three school buses – spinning in the even gustier winds atop of the highest point in The County.
This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."
It’s been 15 years since a total of 28 turbines began spinning on Mars Hill Mountain, making this rural agricultural town the first to community in all of New England to host utility-scale wind farm. Mersereau is now retired. But as Mars Hill’s town manager, 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 accomplishment, he added.
“It was a lot of detail because it was the first. We were cutting all new cloth,” he said. “There wasn’t anything to go by, so every one of these issues, we had to take it as it came up.”
As the state's wind power trailblazer, Mars Hill exposed some of the regulatory and legal pitfalls that can result 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, a vocal critic of Maine’s early wind industry as a lobbyist and leader of the group Friends of Maine’s Mountains.
Neighbors were assured the Mars Hill turbines would be nearly silent so they were surprised by the noise, the low-level vibrations and the periodic shadow-effects. More than a dozen Mars Hill homeowners sued the developer, First Wind, claiming the turbines were hurting their health and property values. The company eventually paid an undisclosed sum, and the homeowners agreed to stay quiet. But O’Neil said the controversy, along with the regulatory and legal battles surrounding the Mars Hill project, had an impact moving forward.
“One of the takeaways from Mars Hill was the industry became a little bit more circumspect when it came to siting future projects,” O’Neil said.
The whoosing noise generated by 100-foot-long turbine blades slicing through the air is both rhythmic and mechanical. It's been compared to sneakers tumbling in 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 on turbines located near homes. And voters in dozens of towns prohibited wind farms or imposed setback requirements based on the experiences of people living near turbines in Mars Hill, Freedom and Vinalhaven.
“There was an acknowledgement of visual impact, of audible impact and wanting to make sure those are mitigated and reduced as much as possible while still creating an opportunity for projects to get built,” said Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association.
Wind power now ranks as the third-largest producer of electricity in Maine after natural gas and hydropower, and it is a major component of the state’s ambitious goals for combatting climate change. A decade and a half after Mars Hill’s 28 turbines began spinning, there are now nearly 400 commercial-scale wind turbines in the state generating enough emissions-free electricity to power an estimated 350,000 homes, according to estimates provided by Payne. While wind power development has slowed considerably in recent years, hundreds more wind turbines are planned in the state.
Payne said there have been many tweaks to the Maine's laws and regulations in response to concerns raised as the industry evolved and grew.
“Any time you have an early mover in the marketplace you are going to look back and say, boy, there are things that we could have or should have done differently,” Payne said. “I'm sure that's the case with Mars Hill just as there is with any other industry. But what’s been important since then is we haven’t done exactly the same thing.”
Some residents of Mars Hill say they appreciate the $500,000 the town has received annually from the wind farm's various owners, and they point out that the turbines haven’t hurt either the Big Rock Ski Area or the golf course that's on the mountain. But others say the windmills have marred the scenery and diminish the enjoyment of their homes.
Not long after the windmills went up, Rodney Mahan and his wife put a sign outside of their house saying, “Honk if you hate the windmills.” Fifteen years later, he hasn’t warmed much to them although he said he and other critics of the turbines have become accustomed them as part of the landscape.
"Well, I lost my hair quite a few years ago and I grew accustomed to it. I accepted the fact, right?” Mahan said. “So, you know, we're just used to it. I don't know how to put it any other way."
Like any high-tech component, however, wind turbines don’t last forever. The industry estimates most turbines last 20 to 25 years and new versions generate more power than those spinning on Mars Hill. That means the 28 turbines are within five years of approaching the point when some other facilities are either retired or “re-powered” with upgraded technology.
Brookfield Renewable USA, a subsidiary of the international energy giant, purchased a 51 percent stake in the Mars Hill facility in 2017 and then the remainder of the stake in 2020. Brookfield spokesman David Heidrich said in a written statement that Mars Hill “undoubtedly helped to pave the way and establish precedence in the permitting and development spaces for wind energy in Maine.” And the 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, at the moment, it continues to perform as expected thanks to our ongoing routine maintenance of the turbines,” Heidrich said. “In fact, that is true of all of our Maine-based wind assets which 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 of his home just beyond the downtown strip, former town manager Ray Mersereau says he's proud of Mars Hill's groundbreaking role in the state's wind industry. And he believes most people in town have come to accept the mountain's new landscape.
“I like the looks of the mountain,” he said. “You know, I liked it before and I like it still.”
While the pace of wind power development in Maine has slowed, it hasn't stopped. In fact, Aroostook County, which is also home to the 48-turbine Oakfield wind farm, remains a popular draw for potential developers because of its open space, low population density and historical ties to forestry and agriculture. A Texas company, for instance, hopes to build what would be Maine's largest wind farm just 10 miles away from Mars Hill in the commercial timberlands around Number Nine Mountain.