SEARSPORT — It's so early that the Dunkin' Donuts hasn't yet opened for coffee, but in the dark morning hours a small army in hard hats is busy at the nearby dock, prepping for a journey that will move some of the largest pieces of cargo Maine roads have ever seen.
The town of Roxbury, in the mountains of western Oxford County, is 84 miles away — as the crow flies.
By the end of the day, Vermont trucker Dave Lucey and his big rig, hauling a giant wind turbine blade to the Record Hill Wind Energy Farm, will have traveled nearly 200 miles.
It will take Lucey a little under six hours before the turbine blade he is hauling is lifted with a giant crane from his trailer. On Google Maps, it's a 2½-hour, 112-mile trip.
The 29,000-pound blade is nearly 150 feet long. At its high point, as loaded on the truck, it is 15 feet tall.
And yet the two turbine blades going out of the port this day are not the heaviest load to leave. Behind them is the nacelle, the top of the turbine, to which the blades will be connected.
The $1.5-million part is the guts of the operation, containing the actual power generator. To move it safely and in a way that disperses its nearly 180,000 pounds of weight over highways and bridges without damaging them, a 198-foot, 15-axle, specially designed trailer is used. The trailer, which weighs another 100,000 pounds, can be steered from behind with a rear operator on board, or remotely from a chase vehicle.
Following the nacelle is another full-sized tractor that can be used to help push the heavy load up some of the steepest hills.
When it finally arrives on the job site, nearly eight hours later, a giant bucket loader will help pull it, and an even bigger dump truck helps push it up the steep mountain work road.
The final mile to where the nacelle will be offloaded can take an additional hour or two.
Beyond the two turbine blades and the nacelle, two more trucks hauling steel tubular sections of the wind turbine's tower will go out.
The crews at Sprague Energy's port facility have been at it for several weeks now, along with the drivers from the Minnesota-based Anderson Trucking Services, independent pilot crews that help guide the trucks, police escorts and workers from Reed and Reed Construction, the company building the Record Hill project for owner Record Hill Wind LLC.
About every other day, a load goes out, and miles away in Roxbury a new turbine is erected. The process will go on through mid-October when all 22 turbines of the $125-million project are in place.
Investment in Maine
About $50 million of the project's cost will be spent in Maine.
The rest goes to the manufacturers of the turbine parts, towers made in Vietnam and blades and nacelles made in Denmark, former Gov. Angus King, one of Record Hill's primary partners, said.
The Yale University Endowment is also a sponsor of the project, as is Independence Wind of Brunswick and Wagner Wind Energy I LLC of Lyme, N.H.
Quantifying the ancillary benefits, including money spent by construction workers at local businesses and the various independent contractors who are hired for specialty jobs or work, is difficult, but there is a strong and positive impact on the local and state economy, King said.
From Craig Turcotte, a materials technician from Lewiston, who is testing the strength of the concrete and grout on all of the turbine tower footings to Wayne Adams, a Farmington-based welder, who was called to Searsport to work on the big trailer that hauls the nacelle, jobs associated with the wind energy project are numerous and intricate.
The process involves thousands of moving parts. The logistics of the trucking route for the oversized parts alone can be mind-boggling.
On the state permit for the truck, the route reads like an intricate locker combination: Station Avenue- 1-3-104-DRUMMOND RD-MIDDLE RD - 23-11-23-139-2-4-26-PARKWAY DR - 26-2-5-120.
To find the best route, the one that's fastest and can handle the specially permitted oversized loads, an engineering firm was called in, King said.
At some spots, the squeeze is so tight that trailer tires are deflated to gain the inches needed to pass below the framework of steel bridges.
Stop signs are prepared for quick removal and reinstallation. Turns have been made wider and shoulders hardened.
Off-duty state troopers, paid by the project, are hired to escort the components. Flag men are posted at the busiest and trickiest intersections along the route.
Even with all that in place, longtime convoy pilot and truck driver Bill McFarland, a Texas native, said the routes here in Maine are among the most challenging he's seen.
"Your roads suck," said McFarland, a pilot for eight years, sitting outside his hotel room one evening at the Admiral's Ocean Inn in Belfast. "I mean that; they're a nightmare."
McFarland, along with seven or eight other truckers and pilots, will spend two months at the hotel, each renting a room for the length of their stay.
Other motels in Belfast and Searsport are hosting staff from the transportation team. The men and women come from all over the country. Many have been doing wind-industry-specific transportation work for a decade or more.
Lucey, the truck driver from Vermont, has been hauling turbine parts for 10 years, he said. Before that, he worked for Anderson hauling another heavy load, granite from his home state.
Joe Busco of Marathon, Wis., sporting Green Bay Packer logos on his hard hat is one of the drivers for the trailer hauling the nacelles. he said he's been working on wind power projects for the past eight years.
He said he didn't yet know what or where his next project would be, but that's not a worry.
Those with wind energy construction skills and experience are, "in demand," Busco said.
"There will be a job, but our priority currently is getting this job done; our focus has to be this job first," Busco said.
Port jobs protected
Duane Seekins, Sprague's manager of terminal operations in Searsport, said offloading, storing and loading wind power components has kept his dockworkers busy. And while the terminal handles all kinds of materials from around the world, including oil and liquid propane, road salt and other materials, the turbine work provides the additional business that makes a difference.
A staff of about 34, crane operators, stevedores and others, are working full -time and year-round at the terminal, Seekins said.
Would he have that many on staff without wind energy parts to offload?
"Probably not," Seekins said. "We probably would not have all 34 of them."
At the construction site in the mountains of Roxbury, more Mainers are on the job. About 110 workers from a variety of contractors are on the site each day, according to Chris Whittemore, the project superintendent for Reed & Reed Inc.
With the company for 30 years, Whittemore, who lives in Greenwood, has spent the past four years on wind-power projects.
Whittemore and others from the company dismiss the notion that wind-energy jobs are fleeting.
"I've heard some people say that it's temporary work," Whittemore said. "It's really not. A bridge is temporary work. Until you build the next one."
Mike Tremblay, a rigging foreman for Reed & Reed, was busy attaching tower sections to the crane Tuesday. A Moscow, Maine, resident, Tremblay has been employed for the past five years on wind-power projects.
"This has put food on my table for that amount of time," Tremblay said. "As far as bridges go, there just hasn't been a lot of that work out there lately. This has carried us through. Otherwise, it would have been the unemployment line."
Peter Garrett, the turbine erection superintendent on the Record Hill project, said the work was anything but temporary.
"This work is no more intermittent for us than a doctor not knowing who his next patient is," Garrett said. "We go job to job to job and if we are not on a wind job, we go to a bridge job or pier job, we work year-round. These are just another patient that walks into the lobby, is what these are. There is a huge misconception that these are such sporadic jobs, that everybody gets laid off at the end and then we draw unemployment. That just doesn't happen."
The jobs are also good-paying for Maine. Reed & Reed's workers earn between $25 and $35 an hour, and during the final stages of construction many are working 65 hours a week, about 25 hours of overtime pay.
The workers on the wind-power projects share an excitement and an enthusiasm for the work. They believe expanding the nation's alternative energy capacity is helping the country move toward a more secure energy future.
"I believe we are building the future, whether it be for a 25-year span and replacing it or something less than that," Katrina Morgan of Auburn said. "I still believe alternative power is our answer for the immediate future."
Morgan works for Sargent Corp., the company that has been tasked with preparing the sites and building the roads for the project.
As the final installation takes place, only about 10 Sargent employees remain on the site, but as many as 30 have worked there. Sargent has worked hand in hand with Reed & Reed on numerous projects in Maine and elsewhere, she said.
Barrett said he grew up on the southern Maine border near a coal-fired power plant in New Hampshire. As a young man, he watched the pollution from that plant blow on the prevailing winds into Maine.
"I could see the coal smoke coming out of those three smokestacks there and blowing right over the state of Maine," Garrett said. "So, if there is a reason for me to be pro wind, that's one of them."
The electricity produced by the project's 22, 2.3-megawatt Siemens turbines is estimated to be an amount equivalent to that needed to power 20,000 Maine homes.
Whittemore said he's proud of the work his crews and company are doing and happy to share information about the industry with the public.
"The people who are on this site, they love this work," Whittemore said. "It's exciting; it really is. It's good to be part of this. It's a good feeling. It truly is."