Maine islanders explore energy options

By Bill Trotter, BDN Staff
Posted Aug. 20, 2008, at 9:55 p.m.

Editor’s Note: This is the third and final story in the Bangor Daily News’ look at energy issues and initiatives on Maine’s offshore islands.

Rising energy prices have become a concern for all Maine residents, but for many offshore island communities, they are an even greater concern.

Residents of offshore islands with their own electric cooperatives pay higher rates for electricity because, unlike customers of large retail electricity companies, they are responsible for their local distribution infrastructure and have fewer users on their systems to help cover costs.

The Fox Islands, comprising Vinalhaven and North Haven, and Swan’s Island and Frenchboro are considering wind turbine power projects that would stabilize and perhaps even reduce electricity costs for residents.

Monhegan and Matinicus, more-remote islands with co-ops that depend on diesel generators for electricity, have the highest expenses because they have fewer residents to help pay for infrastructure and because of the current high cost of diesel fuel. Both Monhegan and Matinicus, which because of their far-flung ocean locales have ample wind resources, have resident panels that are looking into islandwide approaches to reducing energy bills.

Other offshore island communities, however, are taking different approaches to how they might help residents save on energy costs. Some are encouraging residents to take an individual approach, and though some need no such encouragement, others are just beginning to explore the possibilities.

Isle au Haut

Like Swan’s Island and the Fox Islands, Isle au Haut has a local electric cooperative that transmits power to residents by an undersea power cable connecting the island to the mainland. Unlike those other islands, however, Isle au Haut’s connection is single-phase, rather than three-phase, and its population is smaller, according to Paul Lewis, president of Isle au Haut’s electrical co-op.

According to island residents, Isle au Haut has about 50 residents in winter and more than 300 in summer.

The island’s relatively small population prevents it from pursuing a large wind turbine project, Lewis said recently, because it has fewer residents to help pick up the tab of purchasing one or more large turbines, which can cost more than $2 million apiece. Isle au Haut residents pay around $150 to $175 a month for their electricity, he said.

The island’s single-phase power cable connection to Stonington is insufficient for transmitting wind-generated power to the regional power grid, according to Lewis. To do this, Isle au Haut would have to upgrade to three-phase power, which is more commonly used.

A few years ago, the co-op looked into replacing its 6-mile undersea cable and was told that just to purchase a new, single-phase cable would cost around $500,000. Proper installation likely would cost a few hundred thousand dollars more, he said, resulting in a total cost that would be difficult for the co-op’s few hundred customers to absorb.

“Big debt — that’s not something we’d like to do,” Lewis said.

Still, smaller projects are possible on Isle au Haut without making an islandwide distribution system upgrade, according to Lewis. He said the co-op is considering encouraging island residents to use solar-thermal systems to heat their water instead of using propane, which he said costs more than $4 a gallon. He guessed that more than half the propane shipped to Isle au Haut is used to heat water.

Another option is encouraging residents to install their own wind turbines, he said, which could be connected to the island’s single-phase power system. He said he also is interested in the possibility of tidal power, as long as the nascent technology doesn’t prove to be too expensive as it becomes more widespread.

“It’s a beautiful place,” Lewis said of Isle au Haut. “All the islands are. We’ve got to find a way to make it less expensive than it is.”

Vinalhaven motel

One place where tidal power is actively being considered is at Phil Crossman’s motel on Vinalhaven. Crossman owns the Tidewater Motel, located directly above a tidal estuary in the island’s main village.

Phil Crossman said recently that he has been looking into the possibility of tidal power for his business for about five years. More than 100 years ago, island residents cut cisterns into the rocky ground of what is now Crossman’s property and harnessed the tide as it flowed in and out to power two mills and a blacksmith’s shop, Crossman said. Wheels mounted on vertical shafts turned with the flowing water to power machinery that helped operate the mills and blacksmithing equipment, he said.

Modernizing the same cistern technology to produce electricity has not been easy, he said. This spring, he had a prototype tidal turbine made by Lucid Energy Technologies in Goshen, Ind., shipped to Vinalhaven, but it didn’t operate properly when the tide got too low. He shipped the prototype back for adjustments and hopes to get it back this fall.

“[Island residents in the 1800s] were doing incredible things,” Crossman said. “It’s kind of embarrassing to think they were able to accomplish all that and we’re scratching our heads.”

He said the thought of helping to protect the environment by reducing his motel’s dependence on fossil fuels is appealing but the possibility of saving money is a big factor in his pursuit of tidal power. He has estimated that he has spent $30,000 on realizing his goal, but said tidal power could reduce his annual power bill by a third. As it is now, he spends $25,000 a year on electricity for his business, which has 19 guest rooms.

“Electricity out here is awfully expensive,” Crossman said. “A $30,000 undertaking to save myself $8,000 a year would make sense.”

In recent years, he tried mounting a different type of tidal turbine under his motel where the estuary flows through, but the turbines periodically had to be moved out of the way of boats that also pass under the bridge. Having to move the turbines when boats appeared proved unfeasible, he said.

But the idea of generating electricity with the tidal flow on his property was too good to give up.

“I’m just as interested as anybody else in reducing my carbon footprint,” Crossman said. “The appeal is just irresistible.”

Islesboro

On Islesboro, which has about 600 residents, homeowners get their electricity directly from Central Maine Power and so don’t face the same costs as people who live on islands with their own electric co-ops. A 3-mile cable connects Islesboro to Lincolnville, where the increasingly expensive, state-run ferry service brings vehicles and people back and forth to the island, according to Town Manager Marnie Diffin.

Diffin said recently that though electricity on Islesboro may not cost as much as on other islands, rising costs in general are a concern for island residents and officials. Selectmen have talked about possibly giving property owners tax credits for weatherizing their homes, she said, and the town is considering installing solar panels to heat hot water at the school and other town-owned buildings.

Officials also have mused about the possibility of pursuing some kind of wind project, Diffin said, but the town likely would have to grant an exemption to the town’s 75-foot height limit for structures before any plan could move forward.

“It hasn’t really gone that far,” Diffin said.

Cranberry Isles

People in this five-island town, located a few miles off Mount Desert Island, have taken more concrete steps toward addressing the issues of rising energy costs. Cranberry Isles residents are direct customers of Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. and so don’t have electric bills as high as those on many other islands. But like all other Mainers, they still have to contend with rising home-energy and transportation costs.

Many residents already have taken steps toward generating their own power from renewable resources. Daniel Lief, one of the town’s selectmen, has installed solar panels on his home on Little Cranberry Island, also known as Islesford, while Richard Beal, another selectman, last December installed a private wind turbine on his property on Great Cranberry Island.

Last spring, the town as a whole decided to take a more comprehensive approach. Voters at Cranberry Isles’ annual town meeting agreed to purchase electricity for the town’s facilities only from generators that create power from renewable resources.

In what is believed to be a first for any Maine municipality, they voted to set aside $10,000 in local taxpayer money to fund a town energy sustainability initiative. The money is being used to fund a townwide energy study but also could be used for other programs such as demonstration energy audits of private homes or to train local contractors how to install solar hot-water heaters, according to local officials.

Jeffrey Cramer, a resident who is coordinating the study for the town, said recently the aim of the study is to calculate how much energy is used throughout the town’s five islands by taking some direct samples from town records and from people who volunteer information about their personal energy use. By including factors such as how many people live year-round in the community, how many people are there in the summer, and how their general energy-use habits change with the seasons, the study hopes to project likely statistics for the town’s entire energy use.

Cranberry Isles, which has only two islands with year-round populations, has about 100 residents during the winter and can have more than 1,000 in the summer, according to Cramer. He said the primary goal of the initiative is to get residents to chart their own energy use and to reach first for the “low-hanging fruit” that may reduce their individual energy costs, such as changing from incandescent bulbs to more energy-efficient compact fluorescent lights or planning trips to the mainland with neighbors so they can car pool while shopping or running errands.

Eventually, the initiative could lead to community-oriented power generation projects that use wind turbines or solar panels, Cramer said, but this likely would be the last step, after other energy cost-reducing options had been reasonably explored. This approach makes sense for Cranberry Isles because it doesn’t face the same immediate higher energy costs that are found on islands with their own electric co-ops, he said.

With study and initiative, the town wants to take a careful, planned approach toward a sustainable, more stable energy future, according to Cramer.

“There’s a lot of interest in it, but there’s also a lot of skepticism,” he said of the energy study.

If nothing else, he said, the debate will prompt people to do their own research and to adjust their own energy use as they see fit.

“It gets people talking and it gets people educated,” he said. “And that should lead to energy wisdom — hopefully.”

http://bangordailynews.com/2008/08/20/news/maine-islanders-explore-energy-options/ printed on July 24, 2014