BLUE HILL, Maine — There’s a strong current of interest in wind energy running along the Maine coast.
At least that’s how it seemed Saturday night, when more than 60 people spent two hours at the Blue Hill Town Hall listening, debating and learning about the planned windmill project on Vinalhaven.
“If this is successful, I think it’s just going to have a gigantic effect on the whole area,” said speaker George Baker, a summer resident of Frenchboro who has been instrumental in developing the $14 million Fox Islands wind project and is now the CEO of Fox Islands Wind LLC.
“I believe this is going to be a demonstration project for island and coastal communities throughout the whole region,” he said.
The project, which might go live as early as October, will generate power from the winds that blow over Vinalhaven. If all goes as anticipated, residents of Vinalhaven and North Haven Island who belong to the Fox Islands Electric Cooperative will halve the amount of electricity they now purchase and import from the mainland, will sell more than 5,000 megawatt-hours back to the grid each year and will see their power rates drop and stabilize. Residents should save about $500,000 a year on power that they will no longer need to buy.
It sounds pretty good, Baker said, and what’s even better is that the project has been supported by a huge majority of islanders — who voted 382-2 in favor of the project last July.
“We’ve been working incredibly closely with the community,” he said.
Wind projects have been controversial in other parts of the state, with some neighbors unhappy with their altered scenic views or with the noises from the windmills.
Baker thinks community involvement is key to the success of similar projects which might pop up along the coast. Other reasons the Vinalhaven project enjoys a lot of popular support include the fact that as much power as possible will be used locally, the benefits are delivered in the form of electricity prices, and the costs and benefits are “co-located,” Baker said.
“An island is a perfect way to isolate the costs and the benefits,” he said. “To do that on the mainland, you have to think creatively.”
He also suggested that any community considering a wind project include both seasonal and year-round residents in the planning, be “very clear” about financial risks and consequences, and spend as little money as possible on an early feasibility study.
“I believe that if you don’t do this, you’re going to run into more problems down the road than you can possibly imagine,” Baker said.
He spoke enthusiastically about the Vinalhaven project’s innovative funding sources, which include a mixture of “cheap” money borrowed from the Rural Utilities Service, a Depression-era federal agency created to help electrify America, and up to $5 million from a family-owned Maine company, which Baker did not identify, that in return will get a federal tax benefit for 10 years. The company technically will own Fox Island Wind’s assets, Baker said, but after 10 years ownership will revert to the co-op.
The details sound complicated, but the desired goal is simple.
“We will be completely insulated to what happens within energy markets,” Baker said.
That thought had some in the crowd excited.
“I’m a big supporter,” said Mark Hurvitt of Blue Hill, who also is superintendent of schools on Vinalhaven. “Adults are hedging about this. Kids are all fired up.”
His daughter Hannah Hurvitt, a senior at George Stevens Academy, is interested in environmental science.
“Wind seems like a really likely sustainable resource for our community,” she said.