Saving Maine Electrons

Posted Jan. 19, 2011, at 7:33 p.m.

Here’s a bold policy initiative bound to win public favor — keeping more of the electrons produced in Maine in the state. In fact, it could be a campaign slogan — “Maine electrons for Mainers!”

Electrons are, of course, what makes up electricity. Maine is on track to become a major exporter of electricity for the rest of New England. Southern New England states, with their dense populations and large commercial economies, consume much of the electricity within the New England grid, while producing little.

This sort of trade surplus is attractive in principle. But people have a hard time understanding what Maine’s economy gets from selling electricity to neighboring states. Selling lobster to the rest of the nation is easy to understand as an economic driver. Lobster fishermen are able to pay their bills and live here. They buy boats or get them repaired here, supporting another industry. But the impact of the new electricity entrepreneurs, especially those in the wind power industry, is more difficult to weigh and understand.

New wind power projects do inject money into construction. Access roads are built; concrete foundations poured; workers erect the towers and install the turbines. It’s not small change. But wind power is not like a paper mill; there’s no big plant into which hundreds workers stream each morning.

Can wind power give a jolt to Maine’s economy? And if so, how?

The answer is keeping Maine’s electrons for Mainers. Since the state relies on a fuel produced elsewhere — 71 percent of homes use No. 2 heating oil, the highest in the nation — if buildings were converted to electric heat, the billions of dollars that leave Maine to purchase oil would stay and circulate here.

Maine’s electric rates are high. But Maine utility law allows customers to pay lower, off-peak rates at night, which is when wind power production is highest.

While electric heat is almost 100 percent efficient — that is, nearly every electron put through a device is converted to heat — most buildings need to be heated during the day. Here’s where a new technology can make it work. An electrothermal storage heater, which is being offered to residents of Highland Plantation in Maine’s western mountains, where the Independence Wind project is proposed, is a simple device that allows use of off-peak electricity to create and store heat.

The room heaters are about 4 feet long, 2 feet high and 10 inches deep, and contain high-density ceramic bricks through which run electric elements such as those in an electric oven. The heat is generated and absorbed all night, then in the morning, the homeowner flips a switch that powers a fan, dispersing the heat from the bricks all day. If thousands of homes and businesses converted to such heating systems, the state economy would improve, and Maine would lead the way in turning away from oil. Electric cars are another technology that would keep energy dollars at home.

In addition, marrying simple and practical uses for homegrown, lower-cost electricity will close the loop in Maine’s relationship with wind power.

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