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Wind farms on land grow with few critics

Wind turbines lined the hillside at First Wind's project in Sheffield, Vt.

Tony Talbot/Associated Press/File 2011

Wind turbines lined the hillside at First Wind's project in Sheffield, Vt.

Despite controversy that has slowed the Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound, land-based wind farms are expanding rapidly in the region.

One company alone, First Wind Holdings LLC of Boston, has installed enough turbines in the Northeast over the past few years to generate nearly as much power as the long-awaited offshore wind farm. Other companies, too, have developed wind projects in New England states.

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Driving this growth are technological advances reducing the cost of wind turbines and increasing their efficiency, making wind power more competitive with traditional power sources — particularly in the Northeast, where electricity costs can run as much as 60 percent above the national average.

Turbine prices have dropped about 30 percent over the past few years, and new turbines are able to generate electricity at lower wind speeds.

Meanwhile, average electricity prices in the Northeast can top 15 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to a US average of 9.52 cents. New wind technology can generate power at an average cost of about 10 cents per kilowatt hour, excluding subsidies, according to the US Energy Department.

“Some of the states in the Northeast have been some of the fastest-growing markets,” said Elizabeth Salerno, director of industry data and analysis at the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group in Washington. “Power prices are relatively high [there], so by delivering wind projects, you can develop a pretty affordable source of generation.”

First Wind has built wind farms in eight locations in Maine, Vermont, and upstate New York. With the 34 megawatts that will be added when the company completes its wind farm near Eastbrook, Maine, First Wind’s projects will have the capacity to generate nearly 420 megawatts of electricity, compared to Cape Wind’s 468 megawatts.

In addition, Quincy-based Patriot Renewable operates two wind farms in Maine and one in Buzzards Bay, with a total generating capacity of about 25 megawatts. The Berkshire Wind Power Cooperative Corp., a consortium of 14 municipal utilities and the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co., owns a 15-megawatt wind farm in Hancock that went online last year.

A megawatt of wind-generated electricity can power about 300 homes.

Despite the growth of land-based projects, the discussion about developing the region’s wind resources has often focused on offshore projects such as Cape Wind and a proposed “wind energy area” that would encompass nearly 165,000 acres of federal waters off the coasts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Last week, US officials completed an environmental review of the wind energy area, an important step in opening the area to development.

Still, it could be years before any turbines are built offshore, meaning that more land-based projects will be needed to achieve renewable energy goals set by several states seeking alternatives to fossil fuels, such as oil, coal, and natural gas. In Massachusetts, for example, the state has set a goal of installing 2,000 megawatts of wind-energy capacity in the state by 2020 and has required utilities to get 15 percent of their power from wind, solar, and other renewable sources in that same time frame.

Today, there are 61 megawatts of installed wind power capacity in the state.

This has created opportunities for companies like First Wind. Founded a decade ago, the company had its first project up and running in Hawaii in 2006, and its second operating in Maine in 2007.

Today, First Wind has 16 projects — totaling 980 megawatts of generating capacity — operating or under construction in the United States. Four went online in 2011, and another followed this year.

The latest project in the region, Bull Hill wind farm near Eastbrook, Maine, will produce power for NStar, one of the largest utilities in Massachusetts. The company’s other New England customers include ISO New England, the region’s grid operator, and Harvard University.

“Massachusetts is way ahead of everybody [with its clean energy goals] so, from a practical point of view, the demand is being created by Massachusetts,” said First Wind chief executive Paul Gaynor. That’s because wind power generated in other states is being bought by Massachusetts utilities and others to help meet the state’s renewable energy goals.

Although offshore wind is stronger and therefore an abundant and steady source of power, it has proved much harder to site projects in the ocean for a variety of environmental and technical reasons, including how to connect offshore turbines to the onshore power grid.

That’s not to to say land-based wind projects have not faced opposition — Gaynor said all of his company’s projects have — but it generally has not been as vehement and vociferous as in the Cape Wind controversy. That’s partly because First Wind’s projects tend to be in remote areas visible to few people. They also bring jobs to rural areas that desperately need them.

Take Washington County, Maine, one of the poorest areas in New England. First Wind built two projects totalling more than 80 megawatts in the county, creating about 200 construction jobs that lasted several months and pumping much-needed money into the local economy during the recent recession.

“The [businesses] that were really struggling, whether it was a woodcutter’s or a convenience store — they were all pretty much bolstered by this,” said Harold Clossey, executive director of the Sunrise Economic Council in Washington County.

Jack Parker, president of Reed & Reed Inc., a Woolwich, Maine, construction company, said its revenues have doubled since it started building wind farms for First Wind. The company has constructed four First Wind projects in Maine, as well as the Berkshire Wind Power Cooperative project in Western Massachusetts and other wind farms in New Hampshire and Vermont.

“It’s transformed our company,” Parker said. “Wind accounts for more than half our business.” Reed & Reed also builds bridges, parking garages, and marine facilities.

Wind power is helping the Massachusetts economy, said Richard K. Sullivan Jr., the state’s secretary of of energy and environmental affairs. About 600 wind power companies operate in Massachusetts, employing roughly 6,500 people, according to state data.

Sullivan said Massachusetts’ energy policies were crafted to be “agnostic to offshore [or] onshore” wind farms, in the hope of encouraging both types.

“It certainly brings environmental benefits,” Sullivan said. “But make no mistake, it’s also an economic development strategy.”

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.

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