Big Wind

categories: Cocktail Hour / Don't Talk About Politics / Getting Outside


Some of the Towers on Kibby Ridge

I’m writing this column and you’re reading it on a computer powered by coal smoldering somewhere.  There may be some diesel fuel thrown in, and some waterpower, and no doubt a little biomass, a spot of nuclear, a few turns of wind.  But it’s only been ten years or so that my writing required any power at all beyond breakfast—I went from a Hermes portable typer straight to an old MS-DOS PC by Zenith, enormous learning curve, hours of study, all those arcane pathways, nothing I need to know anymore, six generations of computers later.

Anyway, if I turn the room lights out while I work tonight, maybe I can conserve enough to make up for the additional usage—I mean the computer screen and keyboard are both lit, after all, and all my attention is upon them, so why do I need any other light? And I could go ahead and turn off the lights in the bathroom, turn off the printer and scanner and copier and fax until I’m ready to use them.  I could unplug the TV and VCR and DVD and phone machine and various chargers (toothbrush, cell phone, Makita driver-drill) and even the newfangled beeping toaster when they’re not in use—like right now—snuff those little red and orange and green lights that say the machinery is always warmed up.  Same with the other dozen little lights all around the house, little lights uncommon back when carbon paper was the only backup I knew, not so long ago.  And these dark, late fall mornings—sometimes I’ve got ten lightbulbs burning by the time the sun comes over the treetops, lights that sometimes stay on forgotten in daylight till noon, long after their battle against seasonal affect disorder is over for the day.

Here’s the question: how vigilant would I have to be to save four percent of my electricity usage?  Not very, right?  Only four percent?  Like nothing I’d even notice.  Finish a shower four percent sooner, for example.  Turn the water heater down four percent, from 110 degrees to 105.6.  Move the wheel in the fridge from 4 to 3.5, and so forth, all around the house.

Four percent is how much the Kibby Mountain and Kibby Ridge wind project, approved January 14, 2008, by the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission, might eventually be able to add to the power picture in Maine (pretending for the moment that power made in Maine could be said to stay in Maine).

So here’s the next question: should we here in Maine be trading 13 miles of admittedly cut-over (but otherwise undeveloped) mountainside and ridgeline for a four percent we could conserve with no such loss?

Well, the answer’s been given, the project approved, and TransCanada has built 44 towers, each 300 feet tall, millions of dollars investment each, all springing up along with new roads and the heavy transmission lines required, a lot of activity and infrastructure in a place that could have fairly quickly crossed back over to the wild side.

Four percent.


Bob Kimber, whom many of my readers will know—writer, adventurer, activist, teacher—invited Drew Barton and me for a walk up Kibby Mountain in June of 2007.  Many of you will know Drew, too—he’s a forest ecologist and a professor at the University of Maine at Farmington and working on a book about the Maine woods.  Two fine hikers, endless forest knowledge between them.  The point of the walk was to see the proposed site of the Maine Wind Development project.  Bob said to bring snow shoes, and we did, loading them into the back of my car obediently, not that any of us had seen any snow in over a month.

Bob has close ties to the Kibby area, having grown up summers and hunting seasons at his father’s camps in Eustis, 40 or so miles north of Farmington.  Franklin is a big county, and touches Canada.  Kibby, in fact, is part of the Boundary Range, international border, beyond which the land flattens into the St. Lawrence Valley: suddenly, people speak French and eat good food.

The three of us talked in English about wind power for much of the hour’s drive up there.  Bob was way against the proposal.  I was inclined to be sympathetic to it, as wind has always seemed like the cleanest possible replacement for fossil fuel power, widely available, cheap, eternal.  Plus, the Natural Resources Council of Maine is way for it and gives a lot of information here.  I love the machinery, too, fun to see the titanic blades of the windmills coming through Farmington in oversize-vehicle convoys.  I always liked the looks of giant wind turbines where I’ve seen them: the failed elliptical blade on Martha’s Vineyard; the failed three-blade monster on Cuttyhunk Island in Vineyard Sound; the enormous windfarm near Joshua Tree National Monument outside Palm Springs, California, thousands of towers like a bumper crop of titanic whirlygigs.  In Costa Rica the turbines rose above cloud forest on the verges of volcanoes, picturesque, to my mind, especially in a country where wind provides some 75% of electric needs (and I do mean needs, whereas much of U.S. use is wants). All across the Permian Basin in Texas, too, where the oil used to be: wind towers on every ridge now, and more and more going in, and roads to service them, and power lines to bring the power to market, all in a landscape pounded by cattle and oilmen and perennial drought (and no doubt soon the failure of its aquifer).

Transmission lines.  I hadn’t thought about.  The rights of way for those things are wide and range far.  They are traditionally kept clear of foliage with herbicide dropped from airplanes.

Proliferation.  Once you open an area to industrial use, it’s hard to argue against further use.

Future junk.  Simple truths: technologies obsolesce.  That’s a law of the laboratory.  The hulk of the Cuttyhunk turbine is still there twenty years out, having never produced any power, and too expensive to fix.  It looks nice on the island skyline among houses, but it’s garbage.  Who’s going to remove all the infrastructure when it’s no longer making good?

Big wind.  Wind power on this scale isn’t an attractive alternative enterprise anymore, but the turf of energy companies whose nature and need is growth, then more growth.

By the end of the ride, I’d modified my thinking: there’s more to the impact on remote sites than just the prettily whirling towers.

But still.  I’m a big fan.  Of big fans.  Wind power is terrific when the turbines are sited in areas already thoroughly in use.  Wind maps for Maine show all the possible places for the big turbines to work efficiently—not many in southern Maine (except offshore), isolated spots in central Maine, and of course a great many sites in the mountains.  Great, I’d say, no problem, put up towers, catch that wind, but do it atop, say, Streaked Mountain in the South Paris area, which is already covered with communications towers.  Or on the top of any ski mountain, like already thoroughly exploited Sugarloaf, where a few turbines could power the whole operation: run the lifts, blow the snow, cook the Bag Burgers, light the trails, have some left over for the grid.

Of course, Kibby could be said to be thoroughly exploited already—it’s been the site of heavy logging for generations, and really, there’s nothing there.  Why not towers?

Well, because then there will no longer be nothing there.


But this is the story of a hike.

We drove to Eustis, then entered the forest on heavily traveled logging roads, scaring up a small flock of crossbills picking up something in the roadway, finally parking at a trail head, the old fire-warden’s trail.  Not a spot of snow in sight.  So we left the snow shoes.  The trail follows a long upward-climbing ridge, and within a mile we were walking on well-packed snow.  Soon, the snow got softer, the puddles deeper, the trail, having collected a winter’s worth of drift, turning into a pond.

Halfway up, the old warden took a sudden right turn, and the trail climbs more sharply.  The snow got deeper and then deeper yet.  Drew and Bob are lighter than I, and could walk on top of the pack, only occasionally breaking through.  I broke through every fourth step, my shoes getting wetter and wetter, heavier and heavier.  This was good exercise, tough on the knees.

Around us the trees grew stunted until we were walking among true Krumholtz specimens, weather-stunted and basically bonsai-ed spruces leaning the way the wind has blown for millennia.  Boreal chickadees followed our progress, smaller than the familiar black-capped, and with pretty chestnut hoods, buncha cousins.  Blackpoll warblers sang, and yellow rumped, and another warbler unfamiliar, unseen.  We hoped to see spruce grouse, but instead got a ruffed grouse so tame he didn’t bother flying away, though we walked around and around his tree, marveling: here was a bird who’d never seen a person before.

The last couple of hundred yards were the hardest work, deep, soft snow with a brook of melt running beneath it such that when you went through (nearly every step for me), your feet got soaked in water barely above freezing.

Finally the top.  Long views in all directions, crisp, dry day.  Mountains and ridges and hills and valleys and more mountains and ridges and hills and valleys.  We sat on rocks amongst the boards of the old lookout tower, nothing but a platform now, well dated and initialed.  Plenty of smashed bottles.  Kids and their fun.  But I took off my shoes anyway, warmed my feet in the sun, let them dry, pulled on a fresh pair of socks, ahh, balanced my hiking shoes on blueberry bushes to drain, to take the dry air of the afternoon, to bake in the sun.

After lunch we climbed the lookout platform.  Up there, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing everywhere you looked, the only sign of people a stretch of logging road visible below, and a dozen or so cuttings on a dozen or so hillsides, various ages and acreages, bare swaths, mangy swaths, thick green swaths, light green swaths, the changing forestry philosophies and practices and laws of the decades. Over there, just over the next several peaks and ridges: Canada.

Bob pointed out Kibby Ridge, just across a sharp valley, a little below us.  Already there were test towers in place, measuring wind, one, two, three.  These must have been dropped by helicopter, no roads in as yet.  I tried to imagine 44 turbines whirling, whistling, whisking their four percent for Maine into transmission lines straddling cleared rights-of-way and snaking off into the distance, years of labor, decades of maintenance, some pretty good jobs, for sure, seven or eight of them, probably the company of more wind projects in years to come, now that hearts have been broken (if I may make an analogy from the card game), eventual desuetude, ineluctable obsolescence.

Clean power, though,


I haven’t been back up there.  More towers are proposed.  But I guess they will end up as ephemeral as our presence (all of humanity and all of our history, I mean) will turn out to have been.

  1. Julian Hoffman writes:

    This really resonated with me, Bill. For the last couple of years I’ve been bird monitoring on a wonderfully rich and biologically diverse limestone plateau here in Greece. The reason: collecting data as part of an environmental assessment regarding a wind farm proposal which will see many dozens of turbines grace this place which, until now, has been home only to a variety of eagles and hawks, meadow birds, clouds of butterflies, rare plants, and shepherds moving their sheep and cows across the landscape. Here is a look at the place being considered for a wind farm

    I’m under no illusion that the data we collect will mitigate against the plan in this age of energy hunger. And what concerns me is this: all along we talk of solar and wind as “alternative energies,” as though the use of conventional energy sources will be suspended when they become operational. But I’m beginning to think that these “alternative energies” will simply get thrown into the mix of nuclear, coal, oil, natural gas etc. as we feed the economic system in the hope of growth. Unless conservation is part and parcel of the alternative option, then it’s more likely that “alternative” will become “auxillary.”

    Like you I love the look of wind turbines, graceful and clean across a ridge. But as I walk the limestone plateau knowing that the place is about to change irrevocably I wonder what cost will be paid by the birds, the silence and emptiness, the landscape, and the wild. Thanks for a fine piece of writing.

    • Bill writes:

      Julian, thanks. You remind us that it’s a world problem with world solutions. In Greece, at least you can use marble columns for the towers and Olympian breath to turn the blades. Loved the link, thanks.

  2. Douglas Campbell writes:

    So well done, Bill, a good tour of the issues and a reminder that everything’s complicated, no easy answers. Conservation, however, sounds like a pretty easy answer to me. Why is that concept so hard for us to grasp? I suppose electricity is still too cheap, though it comes dear when you reckon the hidden costs. Saving four percent would be simple for most Americans, ten, fifteen percent a little tougher, but doable with a little diligence, while causing negligible inconvenience, or what some will claim is inconvenience. Our whole mindset needs revision. It’s not an inconvenience to conserve electricity; it’s simply mindful living.

    • Bill writes:

      Thanks, Doug–mindful living. The Buddhists always have it right. You know, you could cut simple waste and save huge amounts of power, but you could also cut lots of usage just teaching mindfulness. Mindful we’re not while cruising the Internet. Except Bill and Dave’s. Mindful we’re not while watching TV. Except football.

  3. Peter Peteet writes:

    Desuetude, what an interesting word and concept .Wikipedia tells me it was responsible for the 1825 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision not “to enforce the traditional punishment of ducking for women convicted as common scolds”-a sort of quiet repeal of law by simple non-enforcement. A revolution accomplished by degrees and common consent rather than upheavals and manifestos.
    Laws ,machines, whole structures do become obsolete and yet remain as companions; useful only to those who try to find threads whereby they can weave the chaotic remnants into a meaningful tapestry of history.
    Windmills make me think first of Don Quixote, a caution against the power of letting an eccentric narrative hold sway over all observations and interactions ,the blindness of single vision .I’ve seen them topping the ridges in Costa Rica, parts traveling the highways swaddled in packing atop huge Semi trailers.
    I must confess I simply love them-in spite of the loss of wilderness, unaltered views, unroaded places.I forgive them all these things because they hold out a tiny possibility of resisting obsolescence .As someone who has learned many skills which have become steadily more obsolete (darkroom technician, fireworks tech ,and now an automobile tech)I am acutely aware of how short the lifespan of most technological objects are and I see in windmills a possibility of use stretching into many generations-as I don’t see humanity needing less electrons pushed .As fossil fuels wane and many replacements are introduced with fanfare only to disappoint the lowly windmill keeps spinning-driving now more complex generators and on a scale unimagined but still dependent only on the wind,control and the maintenance of greased bearings-as it was when it only pumped water.I see no reason that windmills can’t be maintained and made more efficient with future technologies. Perhaps technologies can be devised to even eliminate transmission lines and roads-or at least bury the lines or stop the aerial herbicide use. There will be a cost in birds ,views ,erosion , and emptiness yet the benefits of being electrified without fossil fuel ,mercury and particulate emissions- added to the possibility of having infrastructure which could last well beyond a generation ,makes the whistle of those big blades music to my ears.
    And yes music is ephemeral, but it’s also eternal-and windwheels exist both in Heron’s 1st century drawings for a windpowered organ,prayer wheels from 4th century Tibet and the failed incarnations which you have mentioned-and for all we know they may be eternal also ,as you may be, and as my wandering comment appears to be-so I’ll stop but say thanks for the hike story.

    • Bill writes:

      I know–I have a real fondness for machinery of all kinds. But power’s always going to be the problem, until all problems are erased. Conservation is such a good source of power in a busy country like ours. I’ve seen some estimates that simply eliminating wasted power in the U.S. would cut consumption 50%.

  4. Valerie Lane writes:

    Wonderful Bill. Your writing is so good it makes me want to read more of it!