On a pair of hillsides in Downeast Maine, the blades of 19 wind turbines began rotating for the first time recently, spinning air into energy for the Boston utility NStar.
The Blue Sky East project is the first of three New England wind farms — including the largest yet to be built in Massachusetts — that will begin operations before the end of the year and sell their power to NStar. Together, they will generate enough electricity to supply roughly 50,000 homes, providing a cheaper source of power for NStar's customers while increasing economic activity in rural areas that desperately need it.
"The projects not only put people to work in rural communities," said Paul Gaynor, chief executive of First Wind, the Boston company that developed Blue Sky East, "they also generate tax revenues for small towns to help keep taxes down and pay for important community priorities."
Blue Sky East is located in Eastbrook, Maine, a town of just over 400 located about 40 miles east of Bangor. In addition, wind farms will soon will soon start generating power in Groton, N.H., and the Western Massachusetts towns of Florida and Monroe. These three projects, with a combined 62 turbines, will help NStar meet half the state requirement that utilities use long-term contracts get at least 3 percent of their power from renewable sources such as wind and solar.
Energy from the controversial offshore Cape Wind project will more than cover the rest.
"It [means] clean power for our customers for years to come," said James Daly, vice president of energy supply for Northeast Utilities, NStar's parent company.
Electricity from the these new, land-based wind projects is expected to be cheap because NStar signed 10- to 15-year-long contracts, which, by guaranteeing a customer for the electricity, helped lower the cost of financing the wind farms.
In an analysis filed with the state, NStar estimated it could buy energy from the three land-based wind projects at prices below the anticipated market cost for conventionally generated electricity, saving a total of $111 million over the life of the contracts.
"The long-term contract is really what gives the financial security to the developers to put these projects in place," said Richard K. Sullivan Jr., the state's energy and environmental affairs secretary. "It does show that you can do renewables and be price conscious at the same time."
The wind farms also brought hundreds of construction jobs to these areas, and will generate millions of dollars in much-needed tax revenue for small New England communities hard hit by the recent economic downturn.
Blue Sky East, for instance, said it will pay Eastbrook and Hancock County more than $7 million in taxes and other payments over the next two decades.
In Massachusetts, Oregon-based wind developer Iberdrola Renewables, meanwhile, will pay Florida and neighboring Monroe $3 million to lease land for the Hoosac wind project over 34 years, and about $6.8 million in lieu of taxes over 20 years.
Hoosac's generating capacity of 28.5 megawatts, enough to power about 6,000 homes, makes it the state's largest wind project.
Iberdrola is also developing the 48-megawatt wind farm in Groton, N.H., which is expected to generate enough power for nearly 20,000 homes. The company's first payment in lieu of taxes will nearly equal the town's entire operating budget of $545,619.
Town administrative assistant Pamela Hamel said she believes the community's 593 residents will vote to spend the money on practical improvements, such as lowering the local tax rate or fixing roads.
She said the wind farm has allowed the community to benefit from new development, while preserving its character.
"You drive to Groton because you want to, not because it's on the way to any place," Hamel said. "There's no post office. There's no gas station, no stores. I think people want the community to stay quiet. Rural, agricultural, and recreational — that's the kind of community that we want."
Ed Cherian, Iberdrola Renewables' New England developer, said that at the peak of construction the Groton project employed roughly 300 people — about half from New Hampshire, and the rest from Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Many of the project's materials were also purchased locally.
"Steel, sand, gravel," Cherian said. "All the power cable for this project was manufactured in New Hampshire."
Wind has also become a big source of work for construction companies like Reed & Reed Inc., of Woolwich, Maine. Jackson Parker, the company's president, said about half of the firm's business now comes from wind farms.
Reed & Reed also builds bridges, parking garages, and marine facilities.
Parker said the wind industry has helped revive the construction sector, which was particularly hard hit when the housing market tanked during the recession.
"That's one of the reasons these wind projects have been beneficial," Parker said. "They've created hundreds of jobs at at time when the industry really needed it."