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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
“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
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
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.”