SEDGWICK, Maine — A grass-roots organization looking to develop a community wind power project that would bring low-cost, renewable power to the Blue Hill Peninsula has received an in-kind grant that will allow it to begin a study of wind power potential on Caterpillar Hill.
The grant from the Efficiency Maine program involves the loan of a meteorological tower from the University of Maine that will be used by Peninsula Power to measure the wind resources at the top of Caterpillar Hill.
That study, according to Peninsula Power Chairman Paul Trowbridge, will be part of an initial feasibility study that could lead to the development of a small wind power project in the area.
Efficiency Maine is a statewide effort designed to promote the more efficient use of electricity, help Maine residents and businesses reduce energy costs, and improve Maine’s environment. It is funded by electricity consumers and administered by the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
Under the terms of the grant, the university will install the 100-foot tower on private property near the top of Caterpillar Hill and will process data collected from the site. The tower has monitors that track wind speed and direction set at different heights along the length of the tower.
“From that information, they can extrapolate how strong the wind would be at a higher height,” Trowbridge said.
That data can then be used to determine how much power a wind turbine at that location will generate.
“That’s bankable information” that can be used when the group seeks the funding needed to develop a project. At this point, the project anticipates installing three turbines in the area, although the exact location for the turbines has not been determined.
According to Trowbridge, the town’s planning board has indicated that installation of the meteorological tower will not require board approval. If the project moves ahead, however, the installation of the wind turbines would need a full review by the board.
The group is working with town officials from Sedgwick on the details of the grant, which will require liability insurance for the site. Trowbridge said the group has until February to complete those details.
Initially, Peninsula Power planned to provide power to four communities near Caterpillar Hill: Blue Hill, Brooksville, Brooklin and Sedgwick.
According to Trowbridge, information from Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. indicates that a project their size will produce only a third of the power required by those towns.
“There’s nothing permanent about that four-town connection,” he said. “It could be more, it could be less.”
Peninsula Power members also are working to develop a framework for the organization. The project was conceived as a community power project, and one of the things members will need to decide is what community means, according to Treasurer Sandy Cohen.
“One of the questions we’re asking is: ‘How do we define community?’” Cohen said. “We need to find a way to translate the philosophy of community into a single concept of participant.”
Currently, Peninsula Power is sponsored by The Island Institute, giving it the nonprofit status it needs to conduct a feasibility study and to raise funds.
The initial idea was to produce renewable power at or below standard cost through a project tied to the electric grid that would earn credits to reduce electricity costs in the partner communities.
While they are working on the details of how that would work, Trowbridge said, the project will bring other community benefits. Although components for a wind turbine likely will be produced out of state, construction and maintenance of the turbines will create local jobs. Also, he said, once the project is up and running, the money spent on electricity will be recycled into the community.
The group grew from individuals who are concerned about issues surrounding the environment, according to Cohen.
“Most of us are aware of the impact of doing nothing and continuing a very costly method of producing energy,” he said. “This offers an opportunity to do something for the environment that will keep the resources generated right here in Maine.”
The attractive part of wind power is that once the turbines are in place, the cost of wind power is stable over the anticipated 20-year life of the turbine, Trowbridge said.
“Stability is a big factor,” he said. “The cost of wind doesn’t increase. The cost is the same in year one as in year 20. And if energy prices go up in those 20 years, you’re saving more as time goes on.”
Also, at the end of 20 years, the turbine can be refurbished for half the cost of a new system, creating greater savings for the next two decades, he said.
The group is working with selectmen in the four towns during the initial phases of development, but has not formally gone to the towns seeking their participation in the project, including funding. Peninsula Power is working on grant applications with the towns, which could provide up to $20,000 to fund a feasibility study and another $20,000 for the towns to use on conservation projects.
Raising money and recruiting active volunteers is a priority for the group right now, Trowbridge said.
“We have a lot of people who are interested; we have more than 100 people on our e-mail list. But we have a lot of work to do, and we need people who can help with things like grant writing and legal work.”
The grant is the first major step for Peninsula Power, and the wind study will be part of an initial feasibility study. They need to raise $65,000 for that first phase.
The second phase of the project will involve a more complete study of the project, including a more detailed environmental and financial analysis of the project as well as a detailed engineering design for the project, taking it right up to the construction phase. The second phase is estimated to cost $500,000.
Construction costs have been estimated at around $15 million, based on the Vinalhaven project, and Peninsula Power is reviewing different methods of funding for the project.
A key factor in the development of the project will be community involvement. Wind power projects often attract criticism for their impact on scenic areas, and Caterpillar Hill boasts one of the best coastal views in the state. The group is aware of the concerns wind power can generate, Trowbridge said.
Although the planned project will be uphill behind the scenic view and would not have a major impact on that site, scenic views likely will be an issue that needs to be addressed, he said.
“There should be low impact on the scenic turnout, because it’s [the turbine site] in the exact opposite direction from where you’re looking,” he said. “But you will see it from a lot of other places and that certainly will be an issue for some people. That’s why we need input from the community on how to deal with these things.”