Alternative energy takes center stage at Presque Isle college

Posted March 09, 2011, at 7:56 p.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Three Northern Maine Community College students brought together key figures and leaders in Maine’s alternative energy industry Wednesday during a daylong conference that raised questions, supplied answers and energized a field of more than 75 participants to get more involved in moving renewable energy forward.

Former Gov. Angus King, a leading advocate for alternative energy and a principal with Independence Wind LLC, an energy development company, was the keynote speaker at The Maine Event, a clean-energy forum. Habib Dagher, director of the Advanced Structures and Composite Center at the University of Maine, also was a featured speaker. He is leading the state’s research efforts in deep-water offshore wind.

Focus the Nation, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to climate change awareness, youth empowerment and the acceleration of a transition to a clean energy economy, selected NMCC as host for the forum. It was one of 22 held around the country between Feb. 19 and March 9 and the only one organized in the Northeast.

Information shared at the forum helped identify roadblocks and generated solutions to moving the renewable energy industry forward in Maine and nationally. Findings also will be used to help shape political dialogue around the issues affecting development.

The Edmunds Conference Center at NMCC was full as attendees listened to the speakers and engaged in a discussion with a number of panelists in the energy field. The event was organized by Benjamin Dutil, who will be among the first wind power technology program graduates from NMCC this May, and by Gene Martin, a business administration student.

They were assisted by Natalie St. Pierre, who spent the fall semester interning at both NMCC and in U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ Caribou constituent services office.

Both King and Dagher stressed the need for energy consumers in Maine to come forward to generate more energy using the state’s own renewable resources. They predicted the move would keep an additional $1 billion a year in the state and create and save jobs. Both discussed other forms of energy but pointed to wind as an important option, since it is produced locally,  generates more power in the winter when the need is greatest and, at night when heating and car recharging take place, and is 100 percent renewable.

During the panel discussion with six leaders in the state’s alternative energy sector, the focus was on the cost of renewable energy and who will pay for it. Also at the forefront of discussion was how to educate more people about renewable energy.

John Flannery, owner of John’s Electric and Solar in Patten, said he believes more people are interested in alternative energy, and that he has seen growing consumer attraction to solar components. At the same time, he said that the cost to manufacture alternative energy components and the expense of shipping them were roadblocks to industry development.

He did credit NMCC for its first-in-New England wind power technology program, which he said will help expand development by training more Mainers in the field.

Wayne Kilcollins, wind power technology instructor at NMCC, said he felt that public policy was also a roadblock. He wanted to see the state be more open to alternative energy companies. Andrew Plant of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension felt that cost is the biggest factor in preventing alternative energy from catching on in the state.

“It is expensive,” he conceded of the necessary components and the cost of implementing alternative energy in the state. “But education and research could bring it down. People get frightened by the price tag, but you can educate them to look at it in terms of the life cycle. It pays for itself.”

Virginia Joles, director of communications and economic development for Maine Public Service Co. in Presque Isle, said she believes there is excess energy in Aroostook County and that investment is the key to harnessing it. But she also said that there is an ongoing struggle to close a 25-mile gap between the MPS system lines in Houlton and the Maine Electric Power Co. transmission line to southern and central Maine that passes through Haynesville. State energy officials predict that closing the gap would enhance competition, enable development of renewable energy resources and improve service and reliability. No one yet has found the money to fund the project.

Paul Williamson, director and principal coordinator with the Maine Industry Initiative and Todd Griset, a lawyer with Portland-based PretiFlaherty’s energy and telecommunications group, also talked about the ways that the state can reduce costs through shaping public policy, educating more people about alternative energy and developing a cohesive statewide plan to generate investment in the field.

“We need to develop a full-scale plan, with support from the government and public, to move the state forward and generate investment in alternative energy,” said Williamson. “A couple of projects here and there with no cohesive plan is not going to generate investment.”

After the event, the Focus Maine student team will compile the information gathered from participants and forward an action plan to the Focus the Nation headquarters. The national organization will review all feedback and customize a support system to help teams keep event participants engaged and updated.

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