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First Wind grows by aiming low

AURORA, Maine — The truck wound along the logging road in the deep woods of this northern Maine community, snaking up a bump in the landscape called Bull Hill. Only as the truck neared the base of a 95-meter-tall wind turbine did the silvery-white blades become visible among the trees.

The 19-turbine wind farm at Bull Hill operates hundreds of feet lower than other industrial-scale wind farms, which typically spread along mountain ridges that are visible for miles. It is one of the latest developments of First Wind Holdings Inc. and an example of how the fast-growing Boston firm has become a dominant player in the Northeast.

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First Wind, just over a decade old, has prospered by following an unconventional strategy that often avoids towering ridgelines, instead building at lower elevations and taking advantage of technological advances that allow turbines to generate electricity at lower wind speeds. Even so, the company’s projects have still attracted controversy, provoking outrage from some residents of rural and remote areas who say the peace, quiet, and beauty of natural landscapes is marred by the industrial developments.

First Wind today owns and operates 12 wind farms in six states, its portfolio comprising more than 500 turbines with a combined generating capacity of roughly 1,000 megawatts, or enough to power about 285,000 homes. Its revenues have soared to about $250 million a year from just $7.1 million in 2006, according to the company and financial filings, as it has targeted states such as New York, Maine, and Hawaii where high energy costs and friendly renewable energy policies make wind power competitive.

“We’re focused on places where it makes economic sense,” said chief executive Paul J. Gaynor.

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Originally known as UPC Wind, the firm was founded in 2002 by Brian Caffyn, a Massachusetts native who spent years working in the wind industry in Italy. Gaynor, a former executive at a division of General Electric, was the company’s fifth employee. He has led the firm since 2004.

Wind power was barely a speck on the energy landscape then, with oil prices as low as $33 a barrel. Installations were few and far between, with about one-tenth of today’s generating capacity.

“God, it was uncharted waters,” Gaynor recalled recently at his company’s headquarters near South Station in Boston. “When I showed up, we had no money, no megawatts, virtually no people.”

First Wind built its first project in 2006 on the Hawaiian island of Maui, a 30-megawatt wind farm along a ridge on the West Maui Mountains, which tested another key component of its strategy: winning the support of environmentalists. The ridge is home to three endangered bird species and a type of endangered bat.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Andy Doak, a First Wind operations manager, prepared to pop up on top of a turbine at the Bull Hill wind farm.

Before building, First Wind worked with experts on plans to protect those animals and committed a minimum of $1 million to make them happen.

“You have to find a way to coexist. You can’t look at a wind farm and say they have no environmental impacts,” Gaynor said. “That’s the ethic we took from there — I took from there — to every other project.”

First Wind has followed that ethic in New England, said Ted Koffman, executive director of Maine Audubon, a nonprofit wildlife conservation group that has monitored large wind developments for more than a decade. First Wind, he said, has proved its willingness to work with environmental organizations and communities to protect rare and sensitive habitats.

The company sends out analysts to study bird populations, talking to hikers who frequent the location where they plan to build, and sometimes helping to build wildlife sanctuaries.

“First Wind is not always going to agree with us because we want the Cadillac of all best-management practices, and to go above and beyond what the law requires,” Koffman said, but “they’re often very willing.”

While building its Bull Hill wind farm, First Wind worked to accommodate outdoor enthusiasts, improving some access roads, leaving the surrounding area open to snowmobiles and ATVs, and adding picnic tables for visitors to use. First Wind also limits the construction footprint of its projects, said Sean Mahoney, executive vice president for the nonprofit Conservation Law Foundation in Maine, which has supported several of First Wind’s projects.

The company often uses existing logging roads, as it did at Bull Hill, to transport equipment and parts, and does something else worth noting, said Mahoney. It clusters projects around existing transmission to avoid the need build new lines, which might have to cross sensitive natural areas.

Percy L. Brown Jr., a commissioner of Hancock County, where the wind farm is located, said he was initially wary of First Wind’s impact. But the project has brought benefits to the community, including an agreement by the company to pay the county $200,000 a year for the next two decades.

“We can utilize these funds for public purposes,” Brown said, “property tax reduction, economic development, [or] tourism and promotion, reduction of energy costs.”

But First Wind has also attracted fierce critics, who argue its industrial installations are out of place in remote, natural areas, destroying landscapes and property values. Some blame the rotating turbine blades for headaches and dizzy spells.

In Maine, community groups such as Friends of Maine’s Mountains have repeatedly opposed more wind development in favor of hydropower, which generates about quarter of Maine’s electricity. Christopher O’Neil, a spokesman for Friends of Maine’s Mountains, said the relatively small amount of power generated by wind energy, an intermittent source, is not worth the environmental damage.

In Hawaii, First Wind has come under scrutiny following several battery fires at a wind farm on Oahu Island, including one that shut the site for a year. On Maui, some critics say First Wind’s turbines have marred the view of the ridge, visible as planes descend onto the island. Still others say the wind projects have failed to lower electricity prices in Hawaii, the highest in the nation.

“If you heard the message as, ‘Your bill is going to drop,’ those people feel a sense of disappointment,” said Doug McLeod, Maui County’s energy commissioner.

First Wind said it has no control over electric rates set by the state, but knows that the energy its produces is cheaper than other sources of power in Hawaii. Gaynor added that he’s not surprised by criticism there and elsewhere.

“You are always going to have someone opposed to anything new,” he said, “whether it’s a shopping mall, or a house, or a telephone pole.”

In First Wind’s Boston headquarters, Gaynor strode past a room where employees watched a bank of screens, monitoring 17,000 data points, from energy production to weather conditions, coming in each second from the company’ turbines.

Gaynor said he sees more expansion ahead. The company, which employs more than 200, including 70 in Massachusetts, recently launched a solar power division. In addition, First Wind’s systems are built to monitor up to 3,000 megawatts of energy projects — triple today’s capacity.

“That’s why we have empty desks,” Gaynor said, pointing to vacant cubicles around the office. “We hope to continue to grow.”

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